Saturday, January 30, 2010

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 Alle-luia” 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 the 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 for 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.

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