The Church Sanctifying: Worship

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"The Liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows" (SC, 4).

Men have worshipped their Creator since the beginning of the world.  Long before Christianity, many civilizations had elaborate forms of public worship that had been established for centuries.  These pagan peoples recognized the need to offer something to their Creator in return for the many benefits that they had received.  They also recognized that this worship should be public, since so many of their blessings were received in common.  The great civilization of Greece, which rose to prominence in the centuries immediately preceding the coming of Christ, was one that practiced public worship.

The word "liturgy" comes from the Greek and means "public work".  Originally, this referred to any public act, especially those done by the wealthy for the benefit of the rest of society.  It was understood that people who had benefited were bound to make some return from these benefits.  Thus they would often sponsor plays or some other work for the whole society. 

By extension, the word was transferred to acts of worship, since the wealthy would often support these as well.  As we will use the word here, liturgy means the Church's official public worship.  This worship of God must be performed both as individuals and as a people.  The Liturgy differs from our private devotions and prayers since it is public and having an external and a formal aspect.  It is the action of Christ and his entire Church, rather than the action of an individual.  Christ said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Mt 18:20).

Through the Liturgy we, the Musical Body of Christ, are united with Christ in his priestly role to give honor and praise to God.  It is proper that the Church as a whole people should do this, since the Church as a whole people was given the graces necessary for salvation.  The Liturgy allows us as a whole people to offer to God the highest praise possible, since in it we unite ourselves with Christ in praising the Father.  It also adds a new dimension to prayer, since we join in the heavenly chorus of the Communion of Saints, who all belong to the Church.  Praying in community lifts up our hearts and increases charity.

Three elements make up the Liturgy: (1) the Eucharist, that is, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, (2) the sacraments, and (3) the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours.  Each time the Mass is offered, the perfect sacrifice of Calvary, that is, the whole Paschal mystery, the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ, is renewed on our altars.  The Mass, then, is the most important element, since it is here that we join most perfectly with Christ offering himself to the Father.  We can take part in the Mass most perfectly by worthily receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The remaining six sacraments make up the second element of the Liturgy.  These are the special channels of God's grace, given to us by Jesus Christ and enabling us to participate in the supernatural life.  Over the centuries the prayers and ceremonies that accompany the sacraments have changed, but the essential form was established by Christ himself.

Finally, the public worship of the Church is carried out by the daily recitation of the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours.  The Liturgy of the Hours is a prayer of praise composed of Psalms, prayers, instructions, and readings from Scripture and the writings of the saints.  These are divided into segments called "hours", each of which is to be prayed at certain times during the day.  This enables us to sanctify the entire day by praising God.  Priests and other religious have a special obligation to recite, say, or sing the Office, but it is prayed by many lay people as well.

In order that the Liturgy may truly be a sign of the unity of the Church, the Church has laid down certain fixed and universal rules for its proper celebration.  In this way, Catholics all over the world can join together in one act of public worship.  These rituals also ensure that the Liturgy is reverent, dignified, and worthy of being offered to God.

The Liturgical Year

Our natural lives are governed to a great extent by the natural rhythm of the seasons.  As the year passes, our lives are affected by the seasons in nature.  As we pass from one season to another, we must change our clothing, our activities, and even the food we eat.  We also notice that the colors in nature change as we move from one season to another, for example, the changing colors of the leaves in autumn.  The life of the Church is similar to this pattern in nature.  The Church year is divided into seasons as well.  As we move from one season to another, our spiritual lives and activities change, just as our natural lives and activities change with the passing of the seasons.  As in nature we see the colors change with the seasons, so too, in the Church's year we see a change in colors. 

This Church year is known as the liturgical year.  Each division, or season, of the year has its own special prayers for the Mass and the Divine Office.  The mysteries of God are so great and inexhaustible that we will always have to continue to grow in understanding and love.  Since we are unable to grasp Christ's revelation all at once, our Mother the Church shows us one facet at a time rhythmically during the whole liturgical year.  The person of Jesus has so many varied aspects - such as mercy, gentleness, majesty, justice, authority, tenderness, severity, compassion, sorrow, serenity, love, peace, and many more - that we will never come to the end of the mystery that is Jesus, and thus never finish praising him.

The liturgical year is based upon the three major feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  These feasts celebrate the principal events in the history of our salvation: the Incarnation, that is, the second Person of the Trinity becoming man; the Redemption, that is, the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Our Lord; and Pentecost, that is, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, which is the birthday of the Church.  Of these three feasts, Christmas and Easter are especially important, and thus they require periods of preparation as well as periods of celebration.  Easter is the most important, and therefore the periods of preparation and celebration are longer.  Let us now look at the seasons of the liturgical year.

Advent and Christmas

The liturgical year beings on a Sunday in late November or early December, four weeks before Christmas, with the season of Advent.  Advent is the penitential season of preparation that precedes the feast of Christmas.  The word Advent comes from the Latin word that means "coming".

During Advent the Church meditates on both past and future events.  In the centuries before Christ, God's chosen people awaited and kept themselves prepared for the birth of a Savior.  Likewise, we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas, the feast of his first "coming" among us.  During this period, we also contemplate the second coming of Christ at the end of the world.  The Liturgy of Advent prepares us for this event as well.

Advent is a season of penance, since this is the best way to prepare our hearts for Christ.  The readings and prayers in the Mass and the Divine Office focus upon this idea and help us to meditate on the two comings of Christ.  We hear in the Gospel, for example, the message of John the Baptist about repenting in order to prepare for the Messiah's coming.  We also hear the words of Isaiah on a similar theme.

Despite this penitential theme, Advent retains a sense of joyful expectation, since the coming of the Savior is an event of great joy.  We should rejoice, since the Savior was in fact born among us.  On the third of the four Sundays of Advent, the Church particularly reminds us of this through the liturgical readings and prayers.  This Sunday is called "Gaudete Sunday" taken from the Latin word meaning "rejoice".

The season of Advent ends with the midnight Mass on December 24, as the Church begins her celebration of the great feast of Christmas.  This feast celebrates the nativity of our Savior and is the beginning of the Christmas season.  In contrast to Advent, this is a season of great joy.  In includes the feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the three wise men, and it ends with the feast of the Baptism of Christ.

Lent and Easter

The next season of the year is the season of preparation for the feast of Easter.  It is called Lent and begins on Ash Wednesday.  The ashes we receive on that day remind us of our own mortality.  The Lenten season lasts for forty days, a little more than six weeks.  The forty days represent the forty days Jesus spent in the desert preparing for his public life.  In the Liturgy of Lent the Church urges us, through the readings and prayers, to do penance in reparation for our sins.  We can do this through fasting, self-denial, almsgiving, and other good works.

Since this season is so closely linked to the suffering and death of Our Lord, the Liturgy does not express the sense of expectant joy that permeated the Advent season.  Nevertheless, the Church does set aside the fourth Sunday in Lent to express our anticipated joy in Christ's Resurrection.  This Sunday is called "Laetare Sunday", taken from another Latin word, meaning "rejoice".

The final week of Lent, Holy Week, is particularly important.  During this week we concentrate on the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Our Lord.  The Gospels that record the Passion of Christ are solemnly read, and the other prayers and readings directly focus on these events.

The season of Lent ends with the solemn announcement of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ at the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday evening.  At this Mass we begin our celebration of the feast of Easter and the Easter season.  The Easter season is marked by a sense of triumphant joy, since Jesus has overcome death and risen from the dead.  This season lasts for fifty days, concluding with the third major feast of the liturgical year, the feast of Pentecost.


Pentecost is the feast that celebrates the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.  Just as the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets in the Old Testament, Our Lord promised to has apostles at the Last supper that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his Church.  ". . . the Holy Spirit . . . will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 14:26).  This promise was fulfilled on the first Pentecost, and our celebration of this feast reminds us of this great gift.

Ordinary Time

There remains the time in the liturgical year that falls between Christmas and Lent and between Easter and Advent.  This time is called ordinary time, since it is not marked by one of the principal events of our faith.  "Ordinary", however, does not mean unimportant.  This time allows us to reflect more deeply on the mysteries that we have just celebrated and to develop our love for God more fully.  Certain Sundays and Holy Days during this time are also set aside to commemorate other significant elements of our faith or events from the life of Our Lord and Our Lady.

Other Feasts

Now that we have seen the basic framework for the liturgical year, we will fill it in with some of the feasts that occur throughout the year.  We can divide these into three main groups: (1) Holy Days, (2) Sunday feasts, and (3) feasts of the saints and Our Blessed Mother. 

The Church has set aside several days out of the year to commemorate certain significant events in our faith.  In the United States, six of these feasts are Holy Days of Obligation, that is, days on which we are obliged to attend Mass.  They are: (1) the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady (December 8); (2) Christmas (December 25); (3) the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (January 1); (4) Ascension Thursday (forty days after Easter); (5) the Assumption of Our Lady (August 15); and (6) All Saints' Day (November 1).  As you can see, these feasts occur throughout the liturgical year, except for during the season of Lent.

Several great feasts of the church are celebrated on Sundays throughout the year.  Like the Holy Days, these special Sundays are found throughout the liturgical seasons.  During the Christmas season we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, the model for all families, on the Sunday after Christmas.  In the United States the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday closest to January 6.  On the following Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, which marked the beginning of his public life.

In the ordinary time after Pentecost we celebrate two other great mysteries of our faith: the Trinity (on Trinity Sunday) and the Eucharist (on the Feast of Corpus Christi).  Finally, the liturgical year ends with the Feast of Christ the King, which reminds us to look ahead to the time when Christ will come in glory and reign as our King.

In addition to Sundays and Holy Days, there are many weekdays throughout the liturgical year that are set aside as special commemorations.  Several recall events from the life of Our Blessed Mother.  Others honor the saints as great examples of the Christian life.  On these days we should call upon Mary and the saints to pray to God on our behalf.

The colors of the special garments (vestments) which the priest wears to celebrate the Mass as well as other decorations in our churches also change with the liturgical seasons.  The three major colors are purple, white, and green.  Purple symbolizes penance and sorrow, so it is used during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  White symbolizes joy and glory, so it used at Christmas and Easter.  Green symbolizes life and hope, so it is used during the ordinary time, when we should be filled with hope. 

Three other colors are used less frequently, but also serve to remind us of what we are celebrating.  First among these is red, which symbolizes fire and blood.  It is used on the feast of Pentecost for the Holy Spirit, who was symbolized by fire.  It is also used when we celebrate the Passion of Our Lord, the feasts of the martyrs, the feasts of apostles, and the feasts of the evangelists.  Rose is symbolic of joy in the midst of penance and is used on Laetare and Gaudete Sundays.  These Sundays occur during the penitential seasons and are days of rejoicing.  Finally, the color black is a symbol of mourning.  It may be used for Masses for the dead or All Souls' Day.

We now see how the Church provides us with a beautiful and meaningful way of worshipping God throughout the year.  It enables us to reflect on the key mysteries of our faith and the lives of Our Lord and his Mother as we go from season to season.  In order to unite ourselves more perfectly with our fellow Christians, our prayers should reflect the themes so beautifully set forth for us by the Church.  Thus, our entire prayer life will become a more perfect form of worship to be given to Almighty God. 

   Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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