Seasons of Love: Emotional Trajectories of the Liturgical Cycle

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

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Image of St John's Abbey stained glass window, Collegeville, MN.

A Twitter discussion early yesterday morning regarding what color it would be appropriate to wear for Palm Sunday got me thinking about the way we treat liturgical seasons, and especially their visual representations: colors, iconography, and the like. As I continue to grow in ordained ministry, one of the things I've realized about worship planning is that we pastors & worship leaders pay a lot of attention to what the Weekly Liturgy Planner or Official Book of All Things Worshippy says about this Sunday or that occasion. However: we do not attend to the "whole tenor" of the season. For instance, "plug-and-play" only works if we are connected to the broad themes, tensions, and trajectories of the season; it fails if we treat the 2nd Sunday of Christmas as essentially the same as Pentecost.

So in this post, I want to think about the emotional content -- conveyed through multisensory experience -- at least as much as the intellectual (readings, narrative, verbal prayer, etc).

My contention is that the liturgical seasons have significant emotional cues, and that for these emotions to be fully apparent, we need to facilitate both complexity and consistency. The complexity comes from the reality that the emotional register in which these seasons operate are quite rich. Think about the difference between the brief, shallow feeling state of "sadness" versus the deep, long, and complex emotion of "grief." The latter is not a one-note, monochromatic feeling; it has a complicated texture of happy memories, sadness at bereavement, anger at being deprived of another's company, and so forth. And consistency comes from the fact that the truly deep take awhile to sink in. If we're changing constantly without ever settling long enough, then we don't make ourselves available for the long-term.

For instance: there's a perception (that I find most prevalent among pastors who went to seminary 15-25 years ago) that for United Methodists, we should always have white on communion Sundays (ie, first Sundays of the month). How do we build up any sense of continuity and consistency if we're forever changing the colors? It dilutes the potency of the season while substituting some false piety about purity and holiness.

This is my argument against indulging on Sundays in whatever you gave up for Lent, just because Sundays are "little Easters" and aren't counted in the 40 days. It takes time to root out bad habits and disordered affections, and if we're taking a break every 7th day, then we lose all that work.

Of course, we need to balance this with some nuance. The same notes aren't struck every week during a season. The celebration of Laeterae Sunday in Lent in some traditions represents a lessening of the old-school extremely penitential atmosphere. It doesn't reject the emotional atmosphere outright, but it does ameliorate it some. I find this to be extremely challenging. Shane Raynor notes some of these discontinuities and complexities in the wilderness of Lent, especially how in the lectionary, "scripture is all over the emotional map during this particular season."

But we rarely pay attention to the emotional geography, I've found, of the season, leaving each Sunday to fend for itself as we get to it, piece-meal, or preferring to press forward with an exclusively-intellectual sermon series that teaches what our church needs to know.

But heart-teaching is just as important as the head-teaching.
We don't recognize this widely enough in our structured worship planning. In fact, we want to avoid "emotional manipulation" so badly we write it off altogther! I'm guilty of this. But we can't throw the baby out with that bathwater. In the Anglican tradition, the repetition of Sunday collects year after year formed a kind of emotional range that was pedagogy as well as praise. It wasn't coercion, but an invitation to have one's emotional life reshaped by the Gospel narrative.

My first Advent, I made the mistake of reading the introduction to the old Craddock/Hayes/Holliday/Tucker homiletical commentary. It made the suggestion that the preacher attend to the sense of expectancy that is latent in Advent, and actually let that shape the sermon. So that first Sunday, I read from Isaiah 68, and then preached a cliffhanger of a sermon for the extremely small group that gathered in that ancient church. My wife wanted to know what exactly I was thinking! Maybe it was a little too strong a dose of expectancy...but people wanted to know what happened next.

May we always be so bold in cultivating hope!

What do you think about emotional themes, tensions, and trajectories in worship? How can we express these through more than just words?