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What is Liturgy?



Liturgy is the organized, public worship of the Christian church. The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitourgia, meaning a service performed for the community by a wealthy benefactor - in this case, the sacrifice offered to God the Father by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The word rite designates a particular arrangement of divine services, and the words, actions and theology that accompany them. So a rite is a particular way of being a Christian - a pattern of life and worship, and a way of describing and relating to God. 

The organized worship of much of the Catholic Church follows the Roman Rite - historically, the liturgy of the city of Rome and its patriarch-bishop, the Pope. On the other hand, the various Eastern Rites are derived from the liturgies of the ancient cities of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. These liturgies are used by both the Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches. The widest-spread and most commonly used of the Eastern Rites is the Byzantine Rite, the liturgy of Constantinople. (Constantinople was captured by the Turks in 1453, and renamed Istanbul.)

According to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, "Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity... she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way." (Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 4)

These pages describe the liturgies of the Byzantine Rite as performed in the Byzantine Catholic Church, which came to the United States of America with Ruthenian or Rusyn immigrants from the Carpathian mountain region of Europe.  Much of what is described here also applies to the various Greek, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches and their services.

What is worship?


Christian worship is an encounter with God the Father, mediated by the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. In this encounter, human beings discover both their true place in the universe and their dignity as creatures made in the image of God, and receive gifts to enable them to recapture the likeness to God lost in the Fall.

Because human beings are composed of both body and spirit, any worship of God by the whole human person must include both body and spirit. So, our liturgy is full of symbolism - ways in which words and actions can express deeper meanings. Words and actions form a rich tapestry that allows us to experience the presence of God, come to know Him, and accept his gifts of life and salvation.

Christian liturgy consists of words, the actions accompanying these words, and the chant used to sing them. As rational creatures, human beings are privileged to make use of these elements of the liturgy, bequeathed to the Church as part of Holy Tradition. The liturgy is most effective when Christians not only pray, but understand the prayers and services. The prayers and services of the Byzantine Rite are found in its liturgical books, whether in Greek, Church Slavonic, English, or other languages.

Liturgy in heaven and on earth


The liturgy takes place, first of all, in heaven, where Jesus Christ, Son of God and Lamb of God, stands before the throne of God the Father, interceding on our behalf. In this heavenly liturgy the souls of the Just, and the angels of God in all their orders, take part:

I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strenth, honor and glory and blessing." Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever." The four living creatures answered, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshipped. (Revelation 5:11-14)

The Church "in pilgrimage" - that is, the community of Christian believers on earth - takes part as well, through the services established by Christ and his Apostles, and by their successors the bishops. This earthly liturgy, around the world and throughout time, is one way in which we are brought in contact with heaven.

The Church sets aside special places - church buildings - for liturgical services, and adorns them according to the requirements of each liturgical rite. (To find out more about the layout of the church building in the Byzantine tradition, see Liturgical architecture.) And liturgy in this world always involves the body as well as the soul. In the Byzantine Rite, this means that the liturgical arts (architecture, hymnography, iconography) are crucial to the experience of worship. (To find out more, see Liturgical actions: the body in worship.)

Liturgy involves the entire community


Because it is modelled after the pattern of the Trinity, and because it brings us into communion with God, with the angels, and with each other, liturgy is essentially an act of the entire Christian community, even if all cannot be present. It is Christ who is present in every liturgical action, and He emphasized this by saying, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). The apostle Peter compared the members of the Christian community to stones that together form a building:

Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)

Within such a spiritual temple, each member of the community has a part; there are no spectators in Christian liturgy. See Roles in the Liturgical Assembly.

This also means that even services we sometimes think of as "private", such as baptisms and weddngs, are truly actions of the whole church community, and are aimed at a deeper communion between God and man.

Liturgy takes place in time


Just as the church building sets apart a space for worship, and in doing so serves to sanctify the entire world, the Church's liturgy sets aside certain times and events, devoting them to God. In the liturgy of the Byzantine Rite, we experience liturgical time as a set of repeating cycles, by which all times are consecrated:

  • The daily cycle of services, from sunset to sunset;

  • The weekly cycle of commemorations, in which each day of the week is dedicated to a particular mystery, event or personage in salvation history;

  • The 8-week cycle of tones, a set of hymns and prayers repeating every eight weeks through the year; 

  • The liturgical year, the annual cycle of feasts and fasts, in which the Church commemorates the great events of salvation history, and honors the saints and martyrs of each. The liturgical year consists of

    • a cycle of moveable feasts, based on the feast of Pascha (Easter), and

    • a cycle of fixed feasts, with a different commemoration for each day from September 1 to August 31.

The church's liturgy also marks and accompanies pivotal events in the life of each individual Christian, when he or she is made an adopted child of God, obtains forgiveness of sins, receives blessings for lifetime vocations, intercedes for the living and the dead, and finally, dies and is accompanied to the grave by the prayers of the Church. These are the Holy Mysteries and the other services for the living and for the departed.

Our most important liturgical service, the Divine Liturgy, is the fulfillment of all the other services. In the Eucharist (Greek for "thanksgiving"), the Church presents itself and all creation to God, after the example of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our great high priest. It is in this act of thanksgiving that the Church becomes what God intends for it to be; in a certain sense, it is the Eucharist that makes the Church.

Liturgy has a goal


The purpose of liturgy is union with God; we repent of our sins, glorify God, give Him thanks, and ask for his assistance in order to draw closer to Him and inherit the new life He offers us. The liturgy provides us with a pattern for this new life. See Living liturgically.

The liturgy also expresses our faith: the words and actions we use show forth what we believe. That is why the words we use in liturgical prayer are important.

Finally, the liturgy is Christ's means for renewing the world. As the theologian Aidan Kavanaugh put, "Liturgy is the Church "doing the world" the way God meant for the world to be done." If the Church is Christ's visible presence in the world, the liturgy is the Church's visible witness to God's plan of salvation.

Recommended Reading

  • Light for Life: Part Two, The Mystery Celebrated. (Pittsburgh: God With Us Publications, 1996). 
    An excellent introduction to Byzantine liturgy. This is the second volume of a widely-used Byzantine Catholic catechism.


  • Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. The Festal Menaion. (South Canaan, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1969).  Contains essays on liturgy in the Christian East, an explanation of the liturgical cycles, and a summary of the elements of the liturgy.


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