My brother and I didn’t need alarm clocks to wake us in the morning. Our mother’s morning ritual was all we needed. Before the sun rose and before the birds chirped through their morning concert, she would walk in and say, “C’mon, get up, there’s work to be done.”
Mom wasn’t one to rest. She was up at 6:00 a.m. every day—even on weekends—even on vacation. With two children, a house, a dog, and a yard to take care of, there was much that needed to be done. For Mom, work was a prime motivator. She didn’t have to punch a clock. She didn’t have a boss. She didn’t have to report to anyone. It was the work itself that prompted her to get out of bed in the morning. Mom often attended daily Mass. Somehow she instinctively knew that liturgy and labor went hand in hand.
The word liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgía, which can be broken down to two words: laos, meaning people, and ergon, meaning work. Liturgy literally means “work of the people.” In ancient Greece, the word liturgy was used to mean any work that was done in service for the good of the people. So from the beginning, liturgy has been connected to work.
It takes a lot of human labor to make liturgy. There is the work we see: the ministers who prepare and serve as lectors, musicians, altar servers, and so on, but there is more work behind the scenes. There are the farmers who grow the wheat and the grapes, not to mention the distributors, drivers, and countless others who ensure our ready supply of bread and wine. There are those who labor to cut and cast the vessels that hold the Body and Blood of Christ. There are manufacturers who create the fabric and seamstresses who craft the altar linens and vestments. There are gardeners and beekeepers whose work provides our beeswax candles, and so on.
Our act of participation in the liturgy is itself an act of labor. We listen to the word of God and work to understand how God is calling us to act. In the midst of our worship, we process to the altar with the gifts of bread and wine, the “work of human hands.” In this procession we also bring the gift of ourselves—our hopes and our dreams, our cares and our struggles to the altar. Our lives, along with the bread and wine, are transformed by the work of our praying in the Eucharistic Prayer. In that prayer, we hear action verbs such as offer, give thanks, remember and pray—all of which call us to the work of transforming not just ourselves, but the world. We conclude the liturgy with an admonition such as: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” We are sent forth to do our work in the world—bringing God’s presence to our families, workplaces and communities.