Friday Meditation: David Sheppard
"A tale out of season is as musick in mourning; but stripes and correction of wisdom are never out of time."
I have the misfortune to be speaking in the wake of the startling sermon given by our chaplain at the University Service yesterday. I will in no way be giving a response to the challenge of that sermon — not least because my remarks for today were largely written before I had heard it — but rather what amounts to a digressive footnote to some of the same material.
If I may, I will begin by briefly recalling a few of the themes of the readings that we heard in the service yesterday. The epistle, taken from the first letter of John, includes an awestruck meditation on the relation between our present, temporal state, in which we know God's fatherly love for us through Christ by faith, and our eternal state, to be revealed and fully realized only at the end of time with Christ's return in glory. St. John writes:
"...now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is."
In the gospel reading from Matthew, Christ exhorts us not to heed the "signs and wonders" that will from time to time be declared by false prophets to be portents of his imminent return. He then goes on to narrate a vision of that return, describing what are to be its unmistakable manifestations:
"...then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory."
The present week is that of the 25th Sunday after Trinity. Our Book of Common Prayer lectionary, though it lays out daily readings for 27 weeks after Trinity Sunday, specifies propers for only 24 Sundays. In accordance with the arrangement prescribed by the lectionary, the collect, epistle, and gospel that we heard yesterday are those appointed for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany. As that Sunday is often pre-empted by the onset of the pre-Lenten weeks, these readings are just as often heard as we approach the end of Trinity season, as they are this year.
Placed at the end of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, just before the turn toward Lent and Easter, these readings are a fleeting glance toward that final epiphany of Christ's return in glory at the end of all things — a glance through and beyond the looming events of the Passion and Resurrection. Read in the present week, the week preceding the last Sunday of the year, they seem to be less "a tale out of season." Their apocalyptic content is highly appropriate, it would seem, for the very end of the church year, although in this they are very much of a piece with themes taken up at the beginning of the year, in the coming season of Advent.
In 1925, the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Pius XI introduced into its liturgical calendar the Feast of Christ the King, as an attempt to counteract the growing secularism of the age by re-emphasizing Christ's eternal dominion over all things. This feast was initially placed on the Sunday preceding All Saints' Day, but in the liturgical reforms of the late 1960s, the feast was moved to the final Sunday of the church year — this coming Sunday. (In stark contrast to its simple designation in our lectionary as 'the Sunday next before Advent', the feast's official name was also expanded to 'the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.') The Papacy's stated reason for the change of date was "to better bring to light the eschatological importance of this Sunday."
In our calendar, despite its similar preoccupations at this time, the conclusion of the year is not punctuated by any particular moment of liturgical drama. It would in a way seem appropriate, even healthy, that the church calendar should finish off on a high note — that its end should be marked by a grand climactic feast day, a moment of release, that would be for us an earthly and temporal image of that final moment of epiphany that we are taught to anticipate, to hope for, to desire. Instead, it feels as though we slip almost imperceptibly into the darkness of Advent. Our hope remains in futurity, and the whole cycle of anticipation starts up again with a season of penitence and purification.
No doubt there is something right and good to be discerned in this particular way of marking the year's end. As we have heard in the first lesson tonight, "stripes and correction of wisdom are never out of time." We have been reminded not to be led astray by "signs and wonders" promising that Christ's return is at hand. And we have been told that to desire that moment is to look inward and prepare ourselves for it: "...every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure."
I will conclude with a few lines of a sermon on our reading from St. John's epistle. St. Augustine writes:
"...because ye cannot at present see, let your part and duty be in desire. The whole life of a good Christian is an holy desire. Now what thou longest for, thou dost not yet see: howbeit by longing, thou art made capable, so that when that is come which thou mayest see, thou shalt be filled. For just as, if thou wouldest fill a bag, and knowest how great the thing is that shall be given, thou stretchest the opening of the sack or skin, or whatever else it be; thou knowest how much thou wouldest put in, and seest that the bag is narrow; by stretching thou makest it capable of holding more: so God, by deferring our hope, stretches our desire; by the desiring, stretches the mind; by stretching, makes it more capacious. Let us desire therefore, my brethren, for we shall be filled."