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Originally, liturgy was a public service, duty, or work done in the name of the people. In our own time, it is the official public worship of the Church, as opposed to a private devotion. For example, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a liturgy. The private prayer I pray each morning after receiving Holy Communion, is not a liturgy.
The liturgy is the exercise now on earth of Christ’s priestly office, as distinct from his role as teacher and ruler of His people. Christ performs this priestly office as Head of his Mystical Body. It has two purposes: First, to give honor and praise to God, which is worship. Second, to obtain blessings for the human race, which collectively are sanctification.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1136, declares: “Liturgy is an ‘action’ of the whole Christ (Christus totus). § 1140 explains:
It is the whole community, the Body of Christ united with its Head, that celebrates. Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the Church which is the sacrament of unity, namely, the holy people united and organized under the authority of the bishops. Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church. They manifest it, and have effects upon it. But they touch individual members of the Church in different ways, depending on their orders, their role in the liturgical services, and their actual participation in them. For this reason, rites which are meant to be celebrated in common, with the faithful present and actively participating, should as far as possible be celebrated in that way rather than by an individual and quasi-privately.
The Christian liturgy is celebrated with signs and symbols (CCC 1145-1152), in words and actions (CCC 1153-1155), in singing and music (CCC 1156-1158), and in holy images (CCC 1159-1162).
While we generally associate liturgy with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is more than that. For example, the Divine Office is a liturgy of the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1096, gives us this comparison: Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy. A better knowledge of the Jewish people’s faith and religious life as professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of certain aspects of Christian liturgy. For both Jews and Christians Sacred Scripture is an essential part of their respective liturgies: in the proclamation of the Word of God, the response to this word, prayer of praise and intercession for the living and the dead, invocation of God’s mercy. In its characteristic structure the Liturgy of the Word originates in Jewish prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical texts and formularies, as well as those of our most venerable prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, have parallels in Jewish prayer. The Eucharistic Prayers also draw their inspiration from the Jewish tradition. The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover. Christians and Jews both celebrate the Passover. For Jews, it is the Passover of history, tending toward the future; for Christians, it is the Passover fulfilled in the death and Resurrection of Christ, though always in expectation of its definitive consummation.
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