The sacred liturgy is the true worship of God, enacted by Jesus Christ and his body, the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a shared ‘public work’ (leitourgia) with ceremonies, rites and formulas established by Scripture and Tradition.
The Church has liturgy in obedience to God, especially the explicit command of Jesus Christ when he instituted the Eucharist, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). To pray to God in the liturgy does not, of course, preclude praying to God in many other ways, especially in personal prayer each day. Nevertheless, the liturgies of the Old Testament, which foreshadow the new covenant established by Christ, as well as the references to liturgies in the New Testament and the early Church, and the tradition of the last two thousand years makes it clear that liturgy is central to our prayer to God. Why, then, is liturgy so important? One reason is that the Church is the ‘Body of Christ’ or the ‘Bride of Christ’. In the liturgy we do not, therefore, pray merely as individuals but as members of this body on earth and in heaven. In order for this prayer of the Church to be harmonious, however, it is important that there are established words and actions to follow. Here the analogy of an orchestra may be helpful. If every musician decides to invent his or her own music, the overall result is nothing but noise. When, however, the musicians follow the score, the result can be music of profound richness and beauty. Similarly, the liturgy, by following words and actions drawn from revelation, frees us to contribute harmoniously to giving glory to God.
One reason why we need liturgy is very practical, namely that people would tend to disagree about what new forms any invented liturgy would take. The parable in Scripture that warns us of this risk is the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), in which people try to build a tower to heaven and end up being unable to understand one another. A deeper answer is that those who invent new liturgies risk worshipping false gods. The Bible warns of this danger by the story of the golden calf (Exod 32), in which the Israelites broke their covenant with God by worshipping the image of a beast. So to ensure that we worship the true God, the form of all Catholic rites is drawn from Scripture, developed through Tradition and sanctioned by the Magisterium, the Church’s teaching office. Furthermore, the established liturgical rites provide many obvious spiritual benefits. First, these rites have nourished the lives of countless saints and embody the cumulative insight of centuries of Christian worship. Second, there is a clear wisdom in many of the words and actions of these rites. For example, it is one matter to accept that the body and blood of Christ are present on the altar, but liturgical actions such as genuflection, or the elevation of the host in the Mass, help to form an attitude of worship towards the Eucharist. In this and many other ways of which we may not be fully aware, the liturgy helps to prepare us for heaven, when we shall no longer see ‘in a mirror dimly’ (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), but face-to-face. As the true worship of God, the Church’s liturgy follows the ceremonies, rites and formulas established by Scripture and Tradition where the will of God is revealed. Liturgy involves common prayers, visual signs, symbolic actions, sacred music and the proclamation of Scripture.
The principal liturgies of the Church are those of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. All these are led by sacred ministers, usually priests, and consist of official prayers, Scripture and sacramental actions. The liturgies of the Divine Office contain the prayers that priests, religious and many lay people pray several times each day – they consist mainly of the psalms. Other liturgical rites include the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and Benediction for the worship of the Eucharist.
Liturgy follows set times and seasons. Advent is the four-week period when we prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and for his final coming at the end of time. Lent is the forty-day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that follows the pattern of Jesus’ own fast in the desert. Holy Week and Easter are when we celebrate his redemptive death and Resurrection. Ordinary time covers the rest of the Liturgical Year.
During the week, Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, is the most holy day. To attend Mass on Sunday and certain Holy Days is obligatory for all those capable of doing so.
Alongside public worship and the living out of a good and holy life, personal prayer is also essential. While living a good life is one way in which we give glory to God, it is important to be clear about what a ‘good life’ really means. From the perspective of God, no human life is entirely good that has no place for God, because God made us to know him and love him. When one is working, however, one’s principal focus is on one’s working activity, not on God. So we cannot simply treat our work as our prayer. Furthermore, time set aside for prayer does not detract from our productivity at other times. God says, “I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit” (Hosea 14:8). In other words, our fruitfulness comes from God and, if we pray to God, our lives and work will also be fruitful.