A. The church year and formation through the liturgy
1. Liturgical worship forms us spiritually by our participation in it over time. This process of formation can be undermined by focusing too much on how we feel about it. People will say, “I didn’t feel anything,” or, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” or, conversely, they will have a good experience on a particular day, and offer a positive assessment.
2. The measure of spiritual growth and maturity is not our tastes and opinions, but how we respond to things, especially when we don’t like them. If I am cranky about music or a sermon, how do I respond? Do I make an attempt to understand? Am I glad that others who did like it are happy that day? Or do I allow my subjective tastes to make me a grumbler?
3. Good feeling feelings also present spiritual danger. They may create a need for euphoria that cannot be sustained—and, thus, lead to greater crankiness the next time I don’t like something. The lesson of crankiness, in liturgy and in life, is to learn to be more patient and virtuous, and to learn to think about others, not just ourselves. The lesson of good feelings is to learn to give thanks to God for them, but also to learn not to depend upon them.
B. How to approach liturgical themes
1. We revisit certain epistles and gospels each year on given Sundays. Each year is opportunity to hear them in new ways. The lessons are embedded in a tapestry of chants and choral music that draw out the themes of the day. I’ve been at this for about thirty five years, and I find new treasures as I dig more deeply into the same old liturgy every year. We are fortunate to have an organist choirmaster who pays great attention to the themes of the day and season, and chooses texts and tunes carefully to highlight and expand on them.
2. We will become better worshipers if we change our question, from, “How do I feel about this?” To, “What is this saying to me?” In the liturgy, there is a rich array of things that can speak to us. But we must attend to them in order to receive the benefit. This is why the consumer culture is a bad training ground for worship. It teaches us to be shoppers rather than God-seekers, and teaches us a very limiting reliance on feelings, comfort and pleasure.
3. Spiritual formation takes place through what we habitually do over long periods of time. Our actions form our feelings. When we do what is right, we learn to feel the right way. The root of human disorder is letting our feelings lead us to do wrong things. Liturgy means literally, “the work of the people.” As we do this work, we should pay attention to the larger eternal themes that are presented to us, and focus on responding to them in the right way. This is how we learn to become worshipers of God rather than merely religious consumers.
C. End of year themes
1. One theme that appears at this time of year in our liturgies is the theme of exile and return. At Morning Prayer we read through the Old Testament history. At the end of Trinity season, we come to the Babylonian captivity of Israel. God made a covenant with Israel and gave Israel the Promised Land. When Israel was unfaithful to the covenant, God kicked Israel out of the land and sent the nation into captivity in Babylon (modern Iraq).
2. The exile to Babylon reversed the biblical history. God called Abraham out of Babylon, led him to the Promised Land, and gave that land to his descendants. Some fourteen hundred years later, his unfaithful descendants were sent back to where Abraham began. Exile is a biblical theme. Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden. David was exiled from his kingship. Sin separates us from God. Geographic distance from land, garden and temple represents the spiritual distance between God and sinful humanity.
3. We can see the theme of exile in today’s gospel. The bleeding woman was unclean according the Torah. This meant she was exiled from the community and from God, The daughter of the synagogue ruler was exiled from family and community by death. The healing and the resurrection were both a means of return from exile.
4. God promises us a way of return from our exile. The blessed state of God’s people at the end of the Bible in Revelation bears striking resemblance to Eden, from which God’s people were exiled in Genesis. God’s exiled people are restored to his presence and eat the fruit of the tree of life, which heals the wounds of sin. When Israel went into captivity in Babylon, God promised to bring his people back. This is the theme of the Introit (the choir chant at the beginning of the liturgy) for the final Sundays in Trinity season. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah,
Thus saith the Lord, I know the thoughts that I think toward you, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction; ye shall call upon me, and I will hearken unto you, and will bring again your captivity from every nation (Jeremiah 29:11-14).
D. The theme of exile and return in our lives
1. Exile and return are central themes of the life of prayer. The world, the flesh and the devil draw us away from God; when we give into temptation we experience exile or distance from God. God calls us back to himself through prayer, and restores us to communion through confession and forgiveness. We drift away from God’s presence, but we return to God at the altar. We eat again of the tree of life, and the wounds of our sin are healed.
2. This is a seasonal cycle. After Easter and Pentecost, we enter into the long, green Trinity season during which we invariably experience spiritual drift and malaise, and fall into some bad habits. As we come to the end of this season, God calls us back—“I know the thoughts that I think toward you, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction; ye shall call upon me, and I will hearken unto you, and will bring again your captivity from every nation.”
3. Today is last numbered Sunday after Trinity. Next Sunday is the “The Sunday Next before Advent.” Then comes Advent, the season that gets us ready both for the Incarnation and the end of time. This time of year calls to get ready to get ready for the coming of Christ.
4. The theme of exile and return is a good framework for our preparation. How have you drifted away from God’s presence? What sins have you committed? What relationships need to be healed? How is your life of prayer? What bad habits have you fallen into that need to give way to new and faithful disciplines? God calls you back from your exile. God’s thoughts toward you are thoughts of peace and not of affliction. Call upon him and he will answer you. He will save you from your captivity to sin and selfishness, and bring you back into his presence. He will restore your relationships, and feed you with the Bread of Life.