Much of our liturgy — specifically, our ritual prayer which we call the Mass — is multivalent, meaning it has several meanings all at once. This can make it difficult for us to see or voice clearly exactly what our participation means. 

It often helps to speak of what the liturgy is not, in order to rid our experience of the appropriation of excess layers of meaning that can be misleading. To observe what liturgy is not might seem as a negative approach. It is not intended as such for our purposes here. It is used here with the intention of providing clarity.

Consider these many things that the liturgy is NOT:

The liturgy is not Eucharistic adoration. It is public worship, proclamation, acclamation and communion. It is not predominantly a time of private personal prayer. There are personal moments, but they rise and fall within the context of public communal ritual worship of God that speaks, not only to the gathered community, but to the world at large.

The liturgy is not merely Christian fellowship. It runs deeper than like-minded people communing together and enjoying each other’s company. Christian fellowship is a by-product of a deeper reality: we are baptized and made one in the body of Christ.

The liturgy is not rules and regulations of membership in a club. It is required ritual behavior that leads to gospel-inspired living, not personal or professional status.

The liturgy is not Father’s Mass. We are all full participants, not observers or audience. The priest presides over our communal worship, but he is not the only leader. The full assembly leads. The etymology of the word “preside” is “to sit before.” The presider sits before, but also within the assembly, assisting the flow of the proceedings on behalf of the community gathered.

The liturgy is not about “getting” something. It is about “giving” something, giving one’s self, offering one’s full presence to the body of Christ. It is about a “mutual presencing,” a mutual giving.

The liturgy is not entertainment. When we are being entertained, we are receiving something from those providing the entertainment. Their actions stimulate a vicarious emotional response. Vicariousness is experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person. But…

The liturgy is not vicarious. We do not feel it through the actions of another person. We experience it through our own actions. We are directly connected. Through liturgy, we participate in a higher purpose in the world.

The liturgy is not just an adult thing, and children are not just incomplete adults. As was indicated above, liturgy is multivalent, therefore it speaks to all ages and all abilities. We try to make it an intellectual experience, when it is, in fact, a metaphorical experience — making visible, in tangible or material substances, that which is invisible and cannot be fully comprehended. It is a knowing in the heart, more than a knowing in the intellect. It is a “doing” more than a thinking.

The liturgy is not a lesson to be learned. It is a life in which we are formed. By practicing, week after week, the pattern of Jesus’ life, (standing in humility before God, proclaiming the Gospel, sharing in the communion of Christ’s self-emptying love, rising up out of death), we become more and more like Jesus. At liturgy, we are formed in Christ’s way, not taught about his way.

The liturgy is not a celebration of doctrine, but a celebration of a shared belief in a mystery. It is not a mystery to be solved, but a time and place in which, as a community, we seek to be one with that mystery. To believe the mystery of God’s presence we must imagine it. Heaven, the kingdom of God, hell, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s love, are not literal objects contained in any one tangible form. We can know them only through imagination, which runs deeper within us than thought or word.

The liturgy is not a vehicle for personal performance. It is not about the presider’s homily or charisma, or the lector’s ability, or the musicians’ skills. It is about gifts given at the service of the community. It is not a stage upon which the actors play their roles. It is a communion of believers who have various servant-leadership roles by which they serve the entire community.

The liturgy is not affirmation of who we are, but a call to continual conversion to be more like Christ in the world, as individuals and as a community.

We can take this examination of what the liturgy is not as a weekly challenge to help us see more and more clearly what demands our participation places upon our lives and upon our church.

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