Lessons From Worshipping in Exile

Major efforts and discussions have ensued regarding the proper place of the liturgy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that signs are pointing to on-site prayer being restored to some extent, how do we make sense of our worship during this exile? What can we learn from peering through the Biblical lens of exile, liturgy, and prayer that can bring us to an acute response to returning to some sense of “normal” worship that is not mundane, but transformative?

The Book of Exodus and the Pentateuch as a whole are too often overlooked regarding their foundational, catechetical, and illuminating witness portraying God’s desire for humanity to worship him. Creation culminates with the seventh day which is completely dedicated to resting with God (worshipping him). Adam and Eve re-orient the direction of creation by taking the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because they wanted to become like God (Genesis 3:5). The first sin is grounded, among many other things, in the idolatry of self that Adam and Eve falsely and harmfully desire. Biblical history, from this point on, will be caught up with the theme of correct and incorrect worship.

The entire theme of the book of Exodus is centered around worship: “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn. I said to you: Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Exodus 4:22-23). The Hebrew word for “serve” (‘abad) is defined as either worship or work. Israel is enslaved to Pharaoh and must labor for him rather than worship their God through liturgy. Moses comes to free God’s people, and enable them to move from work to worship.

Yahweh redeems the Israelites dramatically and miraculously, but they reject him in exile. The pinnacle of idolatry and false worship in the Old Testament occurs when Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God. Ironically enough, it is at the exact moment when God is giving Moses these sacred commands that lead to newness of life that the Israelites are crafting the golden calf (Exodus 32-34). Here, the people are growing impatient due to Moses’ hiatus on the mountain, lasting forty days and forty nights. They are tired of waiting for him and they will make up their own designs for worship without him.

The Fall of Adam and Eve and the worship of the Golden Calf provide contemporary culture with instructions on how not to enter into worship as pandemic restrictions begin to ease. Adam and Eve had intimate proximity with God and with each other, and yet, the temptation that throws them into sin is the offering to become like gods. They did not trust all that was given to them, but desired to accept the lie that they could become authors of right and wrong; they lost sight of worship.

The opening of worship has and will continue to raise questions among congregations regarding whether or not this is the best way to approach the details. However, our devotion ought to remain unchanging. He has given us everything that we need to not only survive, but to flourish. Returning to the Sacraments should cause trust and reverence to rise not decline.

The Israelites major flaw at the foot of the mountain was their impatience. They wished to determine how to worship because they grew tired of waiting for Moses to return from the top of Mt. Sinai. Impatience drove them to decide that they no longer needed their leader or religious formator in Moses. Their separation from him led to a decrease in awareness concerning their need for God’s guidance and presence. Our separation from the sacrifice of the Mass, from Confession, and the routine of faith must travel through a reflection period amidst our period of patiently waiting for worship to return to some sense of normalcy.

What must be avoided is an impatience with the institutional Church that leads some people to believe that if we survived for months without formal religion then maybe we can follow Jesus on our own. If communal worship does not return to how it appeared before the shutdowns began then we are not going to attend and we are not going to be concerned about missing Mass or avoiding public worship. This mentality places the individual’s expectations above God’s providence, and it results in our own form of idol worship.

The Bible points to the fact that exile creates two options for the worshipper. We either become more devoted and acknowledge our need for proximity to the divine or we grow impatient and our faith becomes stale. We turn more towards the Lord or we turn more towards creating our own right and wrong and placing ourselves at the center of existence and liturgy.

In these times, as we grow closer to smaller public worship becoming available, let us take stock of where this exile has placed us on the road of faith. Are we more convinced than ever that we need God or are we reluctantly, and without even knowing it, becoming more accustomed to life without him? See that it is God waiting for us to return, not us waiting for him to return. Receive, rather than take, and then, the exile will lead to transformative worship.

Photo by Camille Vandoorsselaere on Unsplash

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Thomas Griffin teaches in the Religion Department at a Catholic high school, and lives on Long Island with his wife and son. He has a master’s degree in theology and is currently a masters candidate in philosophy. Follow his latest content at EmptyTombProject.org 

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