When Easter comes early in the year, the two “floating Sundays” came into play. These are the two final Sundays of Epiphany Season, which are more frequently observed at the end of Trinity Season. Most years we never get to read the Propers for Epiphany V and VI at all. They are used only when there is a very early or a very late Easter.
The Gospel which we read today reminds us that the ultimate Epiphany of Christ, His self-disclosure which commenced at His Baptism, is yet to come, when the “tribes of the earth ... shall see the the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven.” That will be His final and perfect manifestation to the entire human race. (On years when Easter comes early this reading prepares us for the holy season of Advent. The passage from Matthew 24 is closely related to the passage from Luke 21 which we read on Advent II.)
Both passages are highly symbolic. Such writing (the technical name for this peculiar style is “apocalyptic”) is best deciphered by finding each symbol as it runs through the Old Testament; for example, the “cloud” on which the Son of man rides was originally the cloud which led Moses and the Israelites through the desert.
There are three valid ways of reading such difficult passages, all in fact necessary for a full understanding. First, our Lord was surely predicting the fall of Jerusalem before the Roman army in A.D. 70, just a generation after He uttered these words. Secondly, they point symbolically to the tragedy and catastrophe with which human history, the sad story of sin and rebellion, must end. Thirdly our Lord's words here describe our own contemporary realities, as His eternal purpose is already being worked out before our own eyes.
He says “there shall arise false christs and false prophets.” That did not end in A.D. 70, nor do we wait until the end of the world! This is perpetually the case. In our own time and place we see those who have claimed to be faithful Christians falling back to the false church of “mother Jesus” and sodomite bishops. Sentimental talk of healing and reconciliation does nothing to change the essential falsehood here.
But we also hear “he shall send his angels, and they shall gather together his elect.” This word “angel” can also be translated “messenger,” and these messengers may be human as well as supernatural. The “trumpet” which gathers the chosen with its great sound is nothing less than the Gospel, the powerful message of Jesus the conquering Redeemer. The false Christs and false prophets, past, future, or present, will not silence the loud blast of truth.
The last Sunday after Epiphany
Today would not be quite complete if we did not sing Hymn 54, marked in our Hymnal “for the last Sunday after Epiphany.” This hymn reflects a fine point of sound liturgical usage and perhaps a bit of unpacking may be helpful in our enjoyment of the hymn. As St. Paul says, “I will sing with the Spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”
The liturgical point is that from Septuagesima Sunday (which comes a week from today) until Easter Day, the Greek word “Alleluia” is not heard in the worship of the Church. That word, in Hebrew “Hallelujah,” meaning “Praise ye the LORD,” is our ultimate exclamation of joy. It expresses the joy unique to Easter, Resurrection-joy. The word is so joyful that we have never quite accepted a translation, but kept it in its Hebrew or Greek forms.
In Mediaeval worship, there was a little ceremony of “saying farewell to Alleluia” on this final Sunday of the Epiphany Season. Therefore this lovely hymn was written. In the first Stanza, a contrast is drawn between the worship of the Church in heaven, “the choirs on high,” where “Alleluia” is sung forever without interruption. But we are not in heaven yet, so our worship cannot realistically maintain this tone of elation. (Don't people who are “happy all the time” get on your nerves?)
For the time being (that is all our time here on earth), we are still sinners. By God's gracious justification, we are “simul iusti et peccatores,” righteous and sinful at the very same time. But Lent, beginning on February 17, calls us to face with courage the fact of our continuing sinfulness even in our justified state. The third stanza of our hymn states, “For the holy time is coming Bidding us our sins deplore.” That “time” is, of course, the holy season of Lent.
Stanza two plays on a contrast between Jerusalem and Babylon. Jerusalem is the true home of God's people, Babylon is the place of our exile, the exile brought about by our habitual sinfulness. But in a larger sense, Jerusalem is our heavenly city, our home of eternal destiny, and Babylon is fallen and corrupt world in which we live. As Psalm 137 reminds us, we cannot “sing the Lord's song in a strange land.”
So do not think it odd or peculiar that we refrain from singing “Alleluia” during that portion of the year when we recall that we still live in “the strange land” of our sinful existence. Instead, rejoice that most of the year, from every Easter until the next Septuagesima, God mercifully permits us to sing the “songs of Sion” in our earthly worship. “Grant us, blessed Trinity, at the last to keep thine Easter in our home beyond the sky.” Septuagesima and Lent are painfully typical of “this present evil age,” but Easter, Ascensiontide and Pentecost are the promise and down-payment of the world to come. LKW