|Next Sunday's Liturgy||Liturgical Seasons||Liturgical Music|
What is Liturgy?
The simplest answer to the
question, "What is Liturgy?" is that Liturgy is the prayer of the Church.
Why, then, when members of the Church gather to recite the Rosary or
celebrate benediction, pray the Perpetual Help or Miraculous Medal Novena
prayers do we call these practices devotional prayers and not Liturgical
Our understanding of Liturgy depends on an understanding of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. The role of the Church is to make Christ present, to body Christ forth to the world. When we gather as Church, when we carry out those actions particular to being Church - Liturgy and the Sacraments - we make real Christ's promise, "When two or more of you are gathered in my name, there am I in your midst."
When we think of attending, or more properly participating in, the Liturgy, we commonly mean participating in the Mass. The Mass is composed of two major parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That is, within the celebration of the Mass there are two distinct ways in which Christ is made present - first in the celebration of God's revealing Word, and secondly in the memorial celebration of the Lord's supper, and this presence of Christ comes precisely through the actions of the believing community in which we are authentically the Church.
The Liturgy of the Word is a celebration of God's self revelation to us in the words of Scripture. When we treat the words of Scripture as revelation, we mean that in the words of Scripture, God gives himself to us as He is. Through the words of Scripture, we establish a relationship with our revealing God. But there is more. The Word became Flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus Christ came among us to reveal the Father, to make the Father present to us. He is the Incarnate Word. In celebrating the Liturgy of the Word, we celebrate that presence among us of God's revealing Word and build our relationship with our God. The Word of Scripture and the Incarnate Word are two sides of the same coin - God's giving of Himself to us and calling us to a loving relationship. Christ, the Incarnate Word, is present to us in our celebration of God's revealing word.
The Eucharist is understood as the memorial of the Lord's Last Supper, the Sacrament of our Salvation, the sign and cause of our unity, the Paschal feast. Our celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist makes Christ present to us and makes us one in Him. A key idea in understanding the Eucharist is that of memorial, remembrance. In the words of Scripture, remembrance has a special meaning. It does not mean simply to recall, but to make present again. When God remembers His covenant with His people, He makes the full, saving power of His relationship present again for the current generation. When we remember God's covenant with us, we commit ourselves again to that loving relationship with our revealing God.
The celebration of the Lord's memorial meal was constitutive of the earliest Christian communities, that authentic action distinctive of the community. The earliest writings of the New Testament were those of Paul and about the Eucharist he wrote, "I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes." (I Cor 11:23-26)
In celebrating the Liturgy of
the Eucharist, the saving action of Christ is made present again to the
Church and members of the Church, sharing in this mystery and receiving the
Body and Blood of Christ are made one. Our celebration bodies forth
Christ to our community and our world. To eat and drink the Body and
Blood of Christ is our communion, our union with Christ and with all those
who are also in union with Him. Our sharing in the Eucharist makes us
one - the Church, the Body of Christ in the world.
In addition to the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Church also celebrates the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours divides the day into segments that are solemnized by the recitation of psalms, scripture readings and other prayers. The Liturgy of the Hours celebrates the sacredness of time, our time throughout each day. The General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours notes, "The liturgy of the hours, like other liturgical services, is not a private matter but belongs to the whole Body of the Church, whose life it both expresses and affects."
It seems that the Liturgy of the Hours has its roots in the ancient Jewish practice of reading scripture and reciting psalms at various times of the day. When the earliest Christians gathered to share the Lord's Supper, they incorporated this practice into their celebration - the origin of the Liturgy of the Word. But, when they were unable to hold the Lord's Supper they would still gather to celebrate God's Word. In the first centuries of Christianity, this practice, following on the Jewish model that Jesus himself would have prayed, became formalized as a way of recognizing and celebrating the sacredness of time throughout the day and took on a life of its own apart from the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
The Church, then, has come to recognize the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Sacraments as those unique ways in which we act most authentically as God's people and experience the real presence of Christ in our midst.
Devotional prayers are more in the nature of private prayers, expressions of our personal relationship with our God. Certainly these prayers can be and are shared with other members of the believing community as a shared expression of faith and devotion, and certainly Christ is present with those who gather to share in devotional prayers - where to or more are gathered... Still, such devotional prayers are not liturgical in the sense that Liturgy and Sacraments bring into reality in the here and now the ultimate presence and saving power of Christ.
Encountering our revealing God within the Church which makes God's revelation and salvation available to us through the presence of Christ that the Church bodies forth in the world, we build a relationship with our God. Apart from the formal and authentic actions of the Church - Liturgy and Sacraments - that form us as God's people, we express our relationship with our God in personal prayer, devotion, and acts of love, justice, and mercy.
So, what is Liturgy? Liturgy is the life of the Church, the people of God, an encounter with our God that makes us who we are as Disciples of Jesus Christ and members of His Body. The Liturgy is our expression of unity with all members of the Church in our common call to make Christ present. And the Liturgy is our source of strength as we live our role of disciples - individually and communally - as we say "yes" to Jesus' command to love one another and continue his mission of revealing the Father and making God's saving love active and real in the world.
Next Sunday's Liturgy
Each year, the Church celebrates
the great events of our salvation - that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the
long-awaited Messiah of Israel was born in time and lived in our world, that
he brought God's love and power to bear in the lives of God's people, that
he suffered and died for us for the forgiveness of sin, that he rose from
the dead, opening for us the way to eternal life, that, after commissioning
his followers to carry on his work and mission, he returned to his Father,
and that he will return to gather the redeemed into the eternal life of the
Kingdom of Heaven. In commemorating and celebrating these events, the
Church divides the year into seasons, the Liturgical Seasons that mark our
pilgrimage through temporal life to eternity. The development of the
Liturgical Calendar, the cycle of seasons into which each year is divided,
emerged in the Church only over time.
We are an Easter people, a people formed by belief in the Resurrection. It is, in fact, this belief that stands behind all the writings of the New Testament. The Easter event is the central event of our salvation. In rising from the dead, Jesus overcame sin and death and opened for us the way to his Father's Kingdom.
The earliest influences on Christian Liturgical worship can be traced to Christianity's roots within Judaism. Jewish tradition had a long history of honoring the Sabbath day, a day of rest dedicated to God. Christian tradition proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, the day after the Jewish Sabbath. Very early on it became customary for Christians to gather on Sunday to remember the Resurrection and celebrate the Lord's supper just as they were accustomed to gather on Saturday in the synagogue to keep the Sabbath. Moreover, Jesus death and resurrection were associated with the Jewish feast of the Passover. Within the first century, then, it seems that it became part of ordinary Christian practice to celebrate Easter itself in conjunction with the Jewish feast of Passover and by the end of the first century, celebrations commemorating the Lord's Supper (Holy Thursday), his death (Good Friday) and his resurrection (Easter Sunday) were combined and celebrated on a yearly basis. The practice of following the Jewish calendar and fixing the celebration of Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon that follows the spring equinox seems to have firmly been decided by about the middle of the second century.
A second focus in developing a yearly cycle of seasons was the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation. One of the first theological crises faced by early Christianity centered on understanding the nature of Jesus Christ. False teachings developed that denied or diminished the human nature of the Messiah. The orthodox teaching that Jesus was one person, fully human and fully divine developed by the fourth century and along with this teaching a fixed date for celebrating the birth of the Messiah was established.
The next centuries saw a rise in fixing dates to celebrate Mary and the Saints. Along with the growth in the number of feast days celebrated, there was a beginning of the formation of liturgical calendars - literally, a listing of dates on which particular feasts were to be celebrated. The earliest calendars developed in local churches, regions or countries. There was as yet no universal calendar for the whole church. It seems that such developing calendars achieved some sort of official status by the eighth and ninth centuries, at least for local regions.
By the end of the middle ages, after the invention of printing, fixed calendars regularly became a part of service books - missals, sacramentaries, books of the hours, and the like. While printing allowed for broader distribution and use of calendars of feasts and celebrations, such calendars were still largely national or regional in nature.
It was with the Council of Trent, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, that an official and authoritative calendar was published as the calendar of liturgical celebrations for the universal Church. Within this official calendar, along with the listing of proper feasts for Saints, two major cycles and seven seasons were defined. The two cycles were the Christmas Cycle and the Easter Cycle, and each of these cycles were further divided into seasons. The Christmas Cycle was divided into Advent, a time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity; Christmastide, which extended from Christmas, through the feast of Epiphany and concluded with Candlemas on February 2nd; and a final season after the Epiphany during which the liturgy focused primarily on the public of life of Jesus before his passion. The Easter Cycle was divided into four seasons. The Easter Cycle began with Septuagesima (seventy - recalling the Babylonian captivity). Septuagesima Sunday occurred approximately 70 days before Easter and approximately 30 days before Ash Wednesday. With Ash Wednesday, the season of Quadragesima began - Lent, or the forty days before Easter that recalled Jesus' forty days in the desert before he began his public ministry. Paschaltide extended from the Vigil of Easter through Pentecost and celebrated the Resurrection, Ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit. With Trinity Sunday the time after Pentecost began.
With minor revisions, the liturgical calendar published by the Council of Trent was operative until a major revision was published in the General Introduction to the Roman Missal after the Second Vatican Council. The new Roman Calendar simplified the understanding of Liturgical Seasons.
The Season of Advent is a time of anticipation and hope that has a dual focus. On the one hand, the Season of Advent places us in the mind-set of ancient Israel as God's people longed for and anticipated the in-breaking of God's power and love in the sending of His Messiah. During the Season of Advent we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ's birth, that distinctive moment in time when the Son of God came in the flesh to begin to establish the Kingdom of God, and we open ourselves again to the ways that we can find the presence of Christ among us in our daily lives as members of the believing community. On the other hand, the Season of Advent has a future perspective, a future anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ to gather the redeemed and establish the Kingdom of God once and for all.
The Liturgical Year begins, in the Season of Advent, with the believing community having the opportunity to consider the nature of the Church as a pilgrim people, a people directed by God, moving through time, longing and hoping for the presence of our God with us, and living towards the ultimate fulfillment of God's plan in the Second Coming of Christ and the final fulfillment of God's will and plan for His created world.
The major focus of the Christmas Season is the Incarnation. The season celebrates the presence of God in our midst. The key feasts of this season offer a meditation on God's presence among us, how this presence can come about, and its practical meaning in the life of the believing community. These feasts include Christmas itself, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, the Feast of the Holy Family, and the Feast of the Epiphany. The Christmas story, as it is presented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, demonstrates that God's presence among us brings with it a breaking down of barriers that keep people apart. There is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, but a community of all who recognize and respond to God's presence in our midst.
How does this presence of God come about? One, simple girl said "yes" to God and conceived His Son. Her "yes" made God's presence to us possible. Mary, the Mother of God is our model for responding to our God and making His presence a reality in our world. Where and how can this happen? The Feast of the Holy Family celebrates that God first made his presence with us in the world known through a simple family, the most basic unit of the larger community of faith, the community of God's people. A family is that first gathering of two or three in Christ's name and is, today, what we can refer to as the domestic Church. With the Feast of the Epiphany we come full circle. The Magi, Gentiles from far away, visit the Holy Family and perceive in its midst the presence of the divine. Mary's "yes" makes Christ's presence in the world possible; that presence is mediated to the world through the Holy Family; seeing that presence of the divine within the Holy Family, all the world, apart from distinctions of status, race, politics, or anything else that can divide people, can respond and belong to the one family of God's sons and daughters.
The Christmas Season offers the believing community the opportunity to consider the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ and to celebrate our call as individuals, as families (the domestic Church), as parishes and dioceses (the local Church), and as the community of believers throughout the world (the universal Church) to constantly mediate to the world around us the presence of Christ in our midst.
Lent is a season of penance and sorrow, sorrow for the fact that it took the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to get humanity to finally see and respond to the offer of the loving relationship that God makes to us, penance, not in the sense of atoning or earning salvation through Lenten practices, but penance in the sense of stripping away all crutches, all false ways of finding security and support, a stripping away of all that stands in the way of being one with others and our God on the most basic levels.
Lent, in a very real sense, mirrors the biblical idea of a ďdesert experience.Ē The forty days of Lent recall the forty years Israel wandered in the wilderness, the forty days Jesus spent in the desert before taking up his public ministry, the prophetic calls for a return to the desert as a time of purification to ready ourselves for saying ďyesĒ again to Godís offer of a loving relationship. In biblical imagery, the desert is a no-manís land, and time spent there is a time of renewal, re-dedication, formation and re-formation. The desert does not exist in the arena of civilization, of settled life with its creature comforts. It is in the desert, stripped of all distractions, we come face to face with ourselves. Thereís no place to hide. And in confronting ourselves, we confront our motives, our values, the defining traits we bring to our relationships. We come to see what is really important in life, what really matters. The desert experience is about confronting the essentials and our Lenten practices attempt to recreate this experience.
The desert experience was never for its own sake. There was always movement from the desert and the re-formation that occurred there back into the world of lived experience. Emerging from the desert, people were called to new life, to live in new ways. The desert experience of Lent leads through the ultimate affirmation of love accomplished in Jesusí suffering and death to the possibility of new life proclaimed in the resurrection.
The Season of Lent offers the believing community the opportunity, the time, to be re-formed and re-dedicated to our sense of community, to consider the nature of the Church as the one people of God, unified in our need for God's love and mercy, reconciled to God by the saving action of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.
We are an Easter people, a people of joy, of hope, of life. Easter faith, faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and hope for our own resurrection, our own sharing in eternal life with our God is the very starting point for Christianity. Our Easter faith forms us, makes who we are.
The celebration of Easter itself is a celebration of life and hope. The Easter mystery affirms that in God's plan, in His loving relationship with us, death and sorrow, the bitter experiences of life are not the end of the story, that new life and new ways of living our relationship with God are always possible. In the time after Easter, the liturgy focuses first on the resurrection appearances of Jesus, his presence beyond his death with his disciples. But, as the time after Easter proceeds, these appearances gradually fade away. Still, without seeing or hearing the Lord, the disciples are assured of his presence with them. In the Feast of the Ascension, Jesus returns to his Father. His mission is complete. But in the Ascension, Jesus commissions his followers to continue his mission, to live the new life offered them in loving service to others, calling them to God's mercy and forgiveness, calling them to share new life. The Easter Season draws to a close with the Feast of Pentecost, with the sending of God's Holy Spirit to strengthen us for the mission Jesus Christ has entrusted to us.
If the Season of Lent offers the believing community the time and opportunity to consider the nature of the Church as the people of God, unified in our need for God's love, mercy and redemption, the Easter Season offers us the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishment of that redemption, to rejoice in the loving relationship God offers us, and to ready ourselves to live the new life offered to us in the here and now by carrying on Christ's work of making God and his saving will present to our world.
The final liturgical season is Ordinary Time, the season of the year. This is our time, a time to follow Jesus on his journey, to take up the call to discipleship, to live towards the eternal life we are promised. There are three cycles of readings for the Ordinary Time over which the Church recalls the mission and ministry of Jesus as presented in all four Gospels. Each Gospel has a theme and focus and each calls us to a relationship with God in different contexts and situations. In our time, we are called to be disciples, to do what Jesus did, even when it means putting ourselves on the line and suffering (Mark). As friends and followers of Jesus, sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters of the Lord, we are called to build the community, to treat each other as the presence of Christ to us (Matthew). As members of the community of believers we are called to offer the love, compassion, forgiveness, hope and acceptance we experience to the whole world, we are to be a means of Christís presence to all creation (Luke). And we are called to examine our response and relationship with Christ, to live into a full and loving relationship with Him, and to express that relationship in loving service for others (John).
These arenít easy tasks, but along the way, at the table of the Eucharist and with the Word of God, we are formed and encouraged to live our time, to live it well. Ordinary Time is our moment in time, our moment of salvation, our time to write the next chapter in the story of Godís dealings with His people.
In Ordinary Time the believing community is offered the opportunity to live discipleship, to consider and embrace the nature of the Church as God's servant, to continue Jesus' mission of building the Kingdom of God.
The Liturgy of the Church is
intended to engage the believing community on all levels, intellectual,
emotional, and spiritual. Through the Liturgy we come to understand
more fully the events of our salvation, we are led to feel joy and
thankfulness at Christ's coming and at his resurrection, sorrow for the sins
that led to his passion, admiration and inspiration in the lives of the
saints, and we are moved to enter ever more deeply into a loving
relationship with our revealing, forgiving, saving God.
The physical arrangement of the space where Liturgy is celebrated, the decoration of that space, the intonation of prayers, the united voice of participants in making responses and joining in sacred song - all these things contribute to our experience of Liturgy, of being the Church at prayer, making Christ present in our midst. (See an overview of the document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship for a full treatment of sacred space).
On the simplest level, the color of vestments, drapings and banners is used to give focus to particular seasons and feasts within the Church year. On the use of various colors, the General Instruction to the Roman Missal states:
The traditional Liturgical Colors are:
On the use of the various
Liturgical colors, the General Instruction to the Roman Missal notes:
Since Liturgical Prayer is the
prayer of the entire Church, the laity attending Liturgical celebrations are
not to be passive observers, but active participants. It is the role
of the priest to preside over the prayer of the assembly; the Liturgical
celebration is not the priest's private domain. Those assembled are to
join with the Church in making the proper responses, offering general
intercessions, greeting each other with a sign of unity and peace. In
stressing the active role of all members of the assembly in the Liturgy, the
General Instruction to the Roman Missal notes the importance of Liturgical
In 1972, the Bishops Committee
on the Liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published the
document Music in Catholic Worship. This document was re-issued
in 1983 along with a companion document,
Liturgical Music Today.
These two documents provide guidelines for the selection and use of music in
Liturgical celebrations in dioceses of the United States.
Music in Catholic Worship set out three guidelines for choosing appropriate liturgical music - the musical judgment, the liturgical judgment, and the pastoral judgment.
In treating musical judgment, the document notes our dependence on competent musicians to judge the technical quality of music and cautions against confusing quality with style. The Liturgy is the prayer of the entire Church and the universal Church is composed of diverse people, from diverse cultural backgrounds. Such diverse cultural backgrounds can be seen even in single parishes. Further, various musical styles are expressive of generational differences. Allowing the voices of the old and the young, the voices expressive of the variety of ethnic cultures in a parish, the sounds of modern and traditional sacred music to be heard in our Liturgical celebrations gives expression to unity in diversity, bridges differences, and honors the place of diverse individuals within our worshipping communities. While a variety of styles is to be fostered, the music in any style must be good music. It should be music intended for Liturgical celebration. As such, popular, secular music is to be avoided. The use of such music, while it may be extremely good music, was judged by the bishops to represent a short-cut to putting together a Liturgical celebration and not according that celebration its due sense of importance.
Liturgical Judgment concerns choosing songs, hymns, acclamations and Mass settings that enhance the assembly's experience of and participation in the Liturgical rites. Consider the musical sound track in a movie. The music should be good music, but it should not intrude on the dialogue and action of the film. If the music is jarring or so elaborate that the audience is more aware of the music than what is happening on the screen, the sound track is a failure. In the liturgy, an elaborate Alleluia verse that takes longer to sing than it does to proclaim the Gospel detracts from the importance of the word of the Gospel. Likewise, elaborate performance pieces on the part of the choir to which the assembly can only listen, diminish the participation of the assembly in the celebration, reducing the assembly to an audience. The texts of Liturgical music, its tone, its style - all should work together to involve the assembly, to contribute to the setting of what is happening, but should never over-shadow the Liturgical rites or be a performance for its own sake.
The ultimate criteria for choosing Liturgical Music, as is the case with all else that goes into planning a Liturgical celebration, is the pastoral judgment. Pastoral judgment determines what is expressive of and meets the needs of this believing community in this time and place. Specifically, the document states, "Does music in the celebration enable these people to express their faith, in this place, in this age, in this culture?"
Liturgy Notes by Fr. Jim Beighlie, C.M.
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