(Photo from St. John Roman Catholic Church- Westminster, MD)
By: Samuel Ng, University of Texas at Austin
‘Λειτουργία’ is the word ‘liturgy’ in Greek. It is a composite of the two words ‘laos,’ meaning ‘people,’ and ‘ergon,’ meaning ‘work.’ The composite of these two words has traditionally been understood by Catholics to mean ‘work for the people.’ However, in recent times, some Catholics have taken ‘liturgy’ to mean ‘work of the people.’ Is this a correct understanding of the word ‘liturgy’? I would suggest not.
Holy Scripture is filled with references to worship that involves sacrifice. Time and time again, priests of the Old Testament offer sacrifice to God. These sacrifices always involve a priest and a victim. Leviticus states “you shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the Lord,” (Leviticus 23:18) and “The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest” (Leviticus 23:20). The nature of sacrifice involves a divinely appointed priest doing something for the people. For example, the Gospel of Luke describes Zacharias going to the temple to minister and the term used to describe such use is ‘liturgy’: “And when his time of service (λειτουργίας) ended, he went to his home” (Luke 1:23). It is also clear from earlier in the passage that Zacharias was not presenting an offering to God along with others present. Rather, he was offering sacrifice to God for the sake of the people. Catholics believe that the Mass is also a sacrifice. In fact, the term “Mass” is a shortened form of “the most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” the highest form of prayer of the Church. However, in this sacrifice, Jesus Christ is both the priest and the victim. The Catholic priest acts in the person of Christ (in persona Christi) because it is Jesus Christ that offers himself as a victim for the salvation of the world. This is what occurs at every validly celebrated Mass.
As Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, said “The liturgy is not about you and I; it is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us.” Whether a priest says a private Mass in his private room or a big parish Mass for thousands of parishioners, he is offering the same sacrifice for the same ends – adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and atonement.
The distinction between understanding liturgy as “work of the people” or “work for the people” is an important one with deep implications. If we understand the most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass correctly as a priest appointed by God doing “work for the people,” we will be led to participate appropriately through receptivity and silent contemplation, lifting up our prayers and petitions with the priest, rather than competing with him for external participation. With all that being said, this is not to say that there is no role for active participation of the congregation in Mass. Of course, there are legitimate and good ways for the laity to actively participate in such as singing in the choir or serving at the altar. Though one still receives the grace of being present at Mass and can participate fully in the Sacred Mysteries without such participation, it is still good and important that we all actively participate in the prayer and Sacrifice of the Mass, as it is what we are called to do as Christians, whether religious or lay.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs and Mary Ryan