What Does Liturgy Mean?

Pope performing the Liturgy
Pope Francis blesses the Eucharist while celebrating Mass at Madison Square Garden on September 25, 2015 in New York City. Getty Images

Liturgy in the Christian church is a rite or system of rituals prescribed for public worship in any Christian denomination or church—a customary repertoire or repetition of ideas, phrases, or observances. Various elements of a Christian liturgy include baptism, communion, kneeling, singing, prayer, repetition of sayings, sermon or homily, the sign of the cross, altar call, and benediction.

Liturgy Definition

A layperson's definition of the word liturgy (pronounced li-ter-gee) is a corporate religious service offered to God by the people, including Sunday worship, baptism, and communion. The liturgy can be understood as a solemn drama involving God and his worshippers, consisting of an exchange of prayers, praise, and graces. It is a sacred time rendered in a sacred space.

The original Greek word leitourgia, which means "service," "ministry," or "work of the people" was used for any public work of the people, not only religious services. In ancient Athens, a liturgy was a public office or duty performed voluntarily by a wealthy citizen.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist (a sacrament commemorating the Last Supper by consecrating bread and wine) is a liturgy in the Orthodox Church, also known as the Divine Liturgy.

The Liturgy of the Word is the portion of the worship service devoted to lesson from the Scriptures. It usually precedes the Liturgy of the Eucharist and includes a sermon, homily, or teaching from the Bible.

Liturgical Churches

Liturgical churches include the Orthodox branches of Christianity (such as Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox), the Catholic Church as well many protestant churches that wished to preserve some of the ancient forms of worship, tradition, and ritual after the Reformation. Typical practices of a liturgical church include vested clergy, the incorporation of religious symbols, the recitation of prayers and congregational responses, the use of incense, the observance of a yearly liturgical calendar, and the performance of sacraments.

In the United States, the primary liturgical churches are Lutheran, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches. Non-liturgical churches could be categorized as those which do not follow a script or standard order of events. Apart from worship, offering time, and communion, at most non-liturgical churches, the congregants typically sit, listen, and observe. At a liturgical church service, the congregants are relatively active—reciting, responding, sitting, standing, etc.

Liturgical Calendar

The liturgical calendar refers to the cycle of seasons in the Christian church. The liturgical calendar determines when feast days and holy days are observed throughout the year. In the Catholic church, the liturgical calendar begins with the first Sunday of Advent in November, followed by Christmas, Lent, Triduum, Easter, and Ordinary Time.

Dennis Bratcher and Robin Stephenson-Bratcher of Christian Resource Institute, explain the reason for liturgical seasons:

This sequence of seasons is more than just marking time; it is a structure within which the story of Jesus and the Gospel message is recounted throughout the year and people are reminded about the significant aspects of the Christian Faith. While not directly a part of most services of worship beyond Holy Days, the Christian Calendar provides the framework in which all worship is done.

Liturgical Vestments

The use of priestly vestments originated in the Old Testament and was passed down to the Christian church after the example of the Jewish priesthood.

Examples of Liturgical Vestments

  • Alb, sticharion in Orthodox churches, is a plain, lightweight, ankle-length tunic with long sleeves.
  • Anglican Collar is a tab-collared shirt with a wide, rectangular tab.
  • Amice is a rectangular piece of cloth with religious symbols and two cords attached to each front corner.
  • Chasuble, phelonion in Orthodox churches, is an ornate circular garment with a hole in the center for the priest's head. The garment flows to the wrists, forming a semi-circle when the clergy's arms are extended. 
  • Cincture, poias in Orthodox churches, is usually made of cloth or rope and worn around the waist to hold up vestments.
  • Dalmatic is a plain garment sometimes worn by deacons.
  • Mitre is a hat worn by a bishop.
  • Roman Collar is a tab-collared shirt with a narrow, square tab.
  • Skull Cap is worn by Catholic clergy. It looks like a beanie. The pope wears a white skull cap and cardinals wear red ones.
  • Stole, epitrachilion in Orthodox churches, is a narrow rectangular garment worn around the neck. It hangs down to the clergy’s legs, ending below the knees. The stole designates an ordained clergy. It is also used to clean communion ware as part of the service.
  • Surplice is a lightweight, blouse-like, white garment with sleeves and lace trim.
  • Thurible, also called a censer, is a metal holder for incense, usually suspended on chains.

Liturgical Colors

  • Violet: Violet or purple is used during the seasons of Advent and Lent and may also be worn for funeral services.
  • White: White is used for Easter and Christmas.
  • Red: On Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Pentecost Sunday, red is worn.
  • Green: Green is worn during Ordinary Time.

Common Misspelling



A Catholic mass is an example of a liturgy.


  • The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
  • Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship (p. 79). 
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Fairchild, Mary. "What Does Liturgy Mean?" Learn Religions, Sep. 22, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-is-a-liturgy-700725. Fairchild, Mary. (2021, September 22). What Does Liturgy Mean? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-liturgy-700725 Fairchild, Mary. "What Does Liturgy Mean?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-liturgy-700725 (accessed April 1, 2023).