January 6, 2021: EPIPHANY (Part II)
January 6, 2021: EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
Rank: Double of the I Class.
[Part II - History and Significance of the Feast of the Epiphany]
“Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of
the Lord is risen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising.”
(Isaias, lx. 1, 3)
O God, who by the direction of a star didst this day manifest thy only Son to the Gentiles; mercifully grant that we, who now know thee by faith, may come at length to see the glory of thy majesty. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
History and Significance of the Feast of the Epiphany
The Feast of the Epiphany is the continuation of the mystery of Christmas; but it appears on the Calendar of the Church with its own special character. Its very name, which signifies Manifestation, implies that it celebrates the apparition of God to his creatures.
For several centuries, the Nativity of our Lord was kept on this day; and when, in the year 376, the decrees of the Holy See obliged all Churches to keep the Nativity on the 25th December, as Rome did—the Sixth of January was not robbed of all its ancient glory. It was still to be called the Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ was also commemorated on this same Feast, which Tradition had marked as the day on which that Baptism took place.
The Greek Church gives this Feast the venerable and mysterious name of Theophania, which is of such frequent recurrence in the early Fathers, as signifying a divine Apparition. We find this name applied to this Feast by Eusebius, St. Gregory Nazianzum, and St. Isidore of Pelusium. In the liturgical books of the Melchite Church the Feast goes under no other name.
The Orientals call this solemnity also the holy Lights, on account of its being the day on which Baptism was administered, (for, as we have just mentioned, our Lord was baptised on this same day.) Baptism is called by the holy Fathers Illumination, and they who received it Illuminated.
Lastly, this Feast is called, in many countries, King's Feast: it is, of course, an allusion to the Magi, whose journey to Bethlehem is so continually mentioned in to-day's Office.
The Epiphany shares with the Feasts of Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, the honour of being called, in the Canon of the Mass, a Day most holy. It is also one of the cardinal Feasts, that is, one of those on which the arrangement of the Christian Year is based; for, as we have Sundays after Easter, and Sundays after Pentecost, so also we count six Sundays after the Epiphany.
The Epiphany is indeed a great Feast, and the joy caused us by the Birth of our Jesus must be renewed on it, for, as though it were a second Christmas Day, it shows us our Incarnate God in a new light. It leaves us all the sweetness of the dear Babe of Bethlehem, who hath appeared to us already in love; but to this it adds its own grand manifestation of the divinity of our Jesus. At Christmas, it was a few Shepherds that were invited by the Angels to go and recognise THE WORD MADE FLESH; but now, at the Epiphany, the voice of God himself calls the whole world to adore this Jesus, and hear him.
The mystery of the Epiphany brings upon us three magnificent rays of the Sun of Justice, our Saviour. In the calendar of pagan Rome, this sixth day of January was devoted to the celebration of a triple triumph of Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire: but when Jesus, our Prince of peace, whose empire knows no limits, had secured victory to his Church by the blood of the Martyrs—then did this his Church decree, that a triple triumph of the Immortal King should be substituted, in the Christian Calendar, for those other three triumphs which had been won by the adopted son of Cӕsar.
The Sixth of January, therefore, restored the celebration of our Lord's Birth to the Twenty-Fifth of December; but, in return, there were united in the one same Epiphany, three manifestations of Jesus' glory: the mystery of the Magi coming from the East, under the guidance of a star, and adoring the Infant of Bethlehem as the divine King; the mystery of the Baptism of Christ, who, whilst standing in the waters of the Jordan, was proclaimed by the Eternal Father as Son of God; and thirdly, the mystery of the divine power of this same Jesus, when he changed the water into wine at the marriage-feast of Cana.
But, did these three Mysteries really take place on this day? Is the Sixth of January the real anniversary of these great events? As the chief object of this work is to assist the devotion of the Faithful, we purposely avoid everything which would savour of critical discussion; and with regard to the present question, we think it enough to state, that Baronius, Suarez, Theophilus Raynaldus, Honorius De Sancta-Maria, Cardinal Gotti, Sandini, Benedict 14th, and an almost endless list of other writers, assert that the Adoration of the Magi happened on this very day. That the Baptism of our Lord, also, happened on the sixth of January, is admitted by the severest historical critics, even by Tillemont himself; and has been denied by only two or three. The precise day of the miracle at the marriage-feast of Cana is far from being as certain as the other two mysteries, though it is impossible to prove that the sixth of January was not the day. For us the children of the Church, it is sufficient that our Holy Mother has assigned the commemoration of these three manifestations for this Feast; we need nothing more to make us rejoice in the triple triumph of the Son of Mary.
If we now come to consider these three mysteries of our Feast separately, we shall find, that the Church of Rome, in her Office and Mass of to-day, is more intent on the Adoration of the Magi than on the other two. The two great Doctors of the Apostolic See, St. Leo and St. Gregory, in their Homilies for this Feast, take it as the almost exclusive object of their preaching; though, together with St. Augustine, St. Paulinus of Nola, St. Maximus of Turin, St. Peter Chrysologus, St. Hilary of Arles, and St. Isodore of Seville, they acknowledge the three mysteries of today's Solemnity. That the mystery of the Vocation of the Gentiles should be made thus prominent by the Church of Rome, is not to be wondered at; for, by that heavenly vocation which, in the three Magi, called all nations to the admirable light of Faith, Rome, which till then had been the head of the Gentile world, was made the head of the Christian Church and of the whole human race.
The Greek Church makes no special mention, in her Office of to-day, of the Adoration of the Magi, for she unites it with the mystery of our Saviour's Birth in her celebration of Christmas Day. The Baptism of Christ absorbs all her thoughts and praises on the solemnity of the Epiphany.
In the Latin Church, this second mystery of our Feast is celebrated, unitedly with the other two, on the sixth of January, and mention is made of it several times in the Office. But, as the coming of the Magi to the crib of our new-born King absorbs the attention of Christian Rome on this day, the mystery of the sanctification of the waters was to be commemorated on a day apart. The day chosen by the Western Church for paying special honour to the Baptism of our Saviour is the Octave of the Epiphany [The Octave day of Epiphany is Jan. 13th, though in 1955, Pope Pius XII, suppressed the Octave of Epiphany among the 15 suppressed Octaves, but retained the Commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord, provided it does not fall on a Sunday].
The third mystery of the Epiphany being also somewhat kept in the shade by the prominence given to the first, (though allusion is several times made to it in the Office of the Feast,) a special day has been appointed for its due celebration; and that day is the second Sunday after the Epiphany.
Several Churches have appended to the Mystery of changing the water into wine that of the multiplication of the loaves, which certainly bears some analogy with it, and was a manifestation of our Saviour's divine power. But, whilst tolerating the custom in the Ambrosian and Mozarabic rites, the Roman Church has never adopted it, in order not to interfere with the sacredness of the triple triumph of our Lord, which the sixth of January was intended to commemorate; as also, because St. John tells us, in his Gospel, that the miracle of the multiplication of the Loaves happened when the Feast of the Pasch was at hand (St. John, vi. 4), which, therefore, could not have any connection with the season of the year when the Epiphany is kept.
We propose to treat of the three mysteries, united in this great Solemnity, in the following order. Today, we will unite with the Church in honouring all three; during the Octave, we will contemplate the Mystery of the Magi coming to Bethlehem; we will celebrate the Baptism of our Saviour on the Octave Day; and we will venerate the Mystery of the Marriage of Cana on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany…
Let us, then, open our hearts to the joy of this grand Day; and on this Feast of the Theophany, of the Holy Lights, of the Three Kings, let us look with love at the dazzling beauty of our Divine Sun, who, as the Psalmist expresses it (Ps, xviii. 6), runs his course as a Giant, and pours out upon us floods of a welcome and yet most vivid light. The Shepherds, who were called by the Angels to be the first worshippers, have been joined by the Prince of Martyrs, the Beloved Disciple, the dear troop of Innocents, our glorious Thomas of Canterbury, and Sylvester the Patriarch of Peace; and now, to-day, these Saints open their ranks to let the Kings of the East come to the Babe in his crib, bearing with them the prayers and adorations of the whole human race. The humble Stable is too little for such a gathering as this, and Bethlehem seems to be worth all the world besides. Mary, the Throne of the divine Wisdom, welcomes all the members of this court with her gracious smile of Mother and Queen; she offers her Son to man, for his adoration, and to God, that he may be well pleased. God manifests himself to men, because he is great; but he manifests himself by Mary, because he is full of mercy.
The great Day, which now brings us to the crib of our Prince of Peace, has been marked by two great events of the first ages of the Church. It was on the sixth of January, in the year 361, and Julian, (who, in heart, was already an apostate,) happened to be at Vienne, in Gaul. He was soon to ascend the imperial throne, which would be left vacant by the death of Constantius, and he felt the need he had of the support of that Christian Church, in which it is said he had received the order of Lector, and which, nevertheless, he was preparing to attack with all the cunning and cruelty of a tiger. Like Herod, he, too, would fain go, on this Feast of the Epiphany, and adore the new-born King. His panegyrist Ammianus Marcellinus tells us, that this crowned Philosopher, who had been seen, just before, coming out of the pagan temple, where he had been consulting the soothsayers, made his way through the porticoes of the Church, and, standing in the midst of the faithful people, offered to the God of the Christians his sacrilegious homage.
Eleven years later, in the year 372, another Emperor found his way into the Church, on the same Feast of the Epiphany. It was Valens; a Christian, like Julian, by baptism; but a persecutor, in the name of Arianism, of that same Church which Julian persecuted in the name of his vain philosophy and still vainer gods. As Julian felt himself necessitated by motives of worldly policy to bow down, on this day, before the divinity of the Galilean; so, on this same day, the holy courage of a saintly Bishop made Valens prostrate himself at the feet of Jesus the King of kings.
Saint Basil had just then had his famous interview with the Prefect Modestus, in which his episcopal intrepidity had defeated all the might of earthly power. Valens had come to Cӕsarea, and, with his soul denied with the Arian heresy, he entered the Basilica, when the Bishop was celebrating, with his people, the glorious Theophany. Let us listen to St. Gregory Nazianzum, thus describing the scene with his usual eloquence. “The Emperor entered the Church. The chanting of the psalms echoed through the holy place like the rumbling of thunder. The people, like a waving sea, filled the house of God. Such was the order and pomp in and about the sanctuary, that it looked more like heaven than earth. Basil himself stood erect before the people, as the Scripture describes Samuel—his body, and eyes, and soul, motionless as though nothing strange had taken place, and, if I may say so, his whole being was fastened to his God and the holy Altar. The sacred ministers, who surrounded the Pontiff, were in deep recollectedness and reverence. The Emperor heard and saw all this. He had never before witnessed a spectacle so imposing. He was overpowered. His head grew dizzy, and darkness veiled his eyes.”
Jesus, the King of ages, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, had conquered. Valens was disarmed; his resolution of using violence against the holy Bishop was gone; and if heresy kept him from at once adoring the Word consubstantial to the Father, he, at least, united his exterior worship with that which Basil's flock was paying to the Incarnate God. When the Offertory came, he advanced towards the Sanctuary, and presented his gifts to Christ in the person of his holy Priest. The fear lest Basil might refuse to accept them took such possession of the Emperor, that had not the sacred ministers supported him, he would have fallen at the foot of the Altar.
Thus has the Kingship of our new-born Saviour been acknowledged by the great ones of this world. The Royal Psalmist had sung this prophecy—the Kings of the earth shall serve him, and his enemies shall lick the ground under his feet (Ps, lxxi. 9, 11).
The race of Emperors like Julian and Valens was to be followed by Monarchs, who would bend their knee before this Babe of Bethlehem, and offer him the homage of orthodox faith and devoted hearts. Theodosius, Charlemagne, our own Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor, Stephen of Hungary, the Emperor Henry 2nd, Ferdinand of Castile, Louis 9th of France, are examples of Kings who had a special devotion to the Feast of the Epiphany. Their ambition was to go, in company with the Magi, to the feet of the Divine Infant, and offer him their gifts...
But this custom of imitating the Three Kings in their mystic gifts was not confined to Courts. In the Middle-Ages, the Faithful used to present, on the Epiphany, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to be blessed by the Priest. These tokens of their devotedness to Jesus were kept as pledges of God's blessing upon their houses and families. The practice is still observed in some parts of Germany: and the prayer for the Blessing was in the Roman Ritual, until Pope Paul 5th suppressed it, together with several others, as being seldom required by the Faithful…
But let us return to the triumph of our sweet Saviour and King. His magnificence is manifested to us so brightly on this Feast! Our mother, the Church, is going to initiate us into the mysteries we are to celebrate. Let us imitate the faith and obedience of the Magi: let us adore, with the holy Baptist, the divine Lamb, over whom the heavens: let us take our place at the mystic feast of Cana, where our dear King is present, thrice manifested, thrice glorified. In the last two mysteries, let us not lose sight of the Babe of Bethlehem; and in the Babe of Bethlehem let us cease not to recognise the Great God, (in whom the Father was well-pleased,) and the supreme Ruler and Creator of all things.
Sequel of the holy Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter ii. 1-12
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold there came wise men from the East, to Jerusalem, saying: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests, and the scribes of the people, he enquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda: for it is written by the Prophet: And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod privately calling the Wise Men, learned diligently of them the time of the star, which appeared to them: and sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go, and diligently enquire after the Child: and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore him. Who, having heard the king, went their way. And behold the star, which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And seeing the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And entering into the house, they found the Child with Mary, his Mother, (here, all kneel,) and falling down, they adored him. And, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep, that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their own country.
The Magi, the first-fruits of the Gentile-world, have been admitted into the court of the great King whom they have been seeking, and we have followed them. The Child has smiled upon us, as he did upon them. All the fatigues of the long journey—which man must take to reach his God—all are over and forgotten; our Emmanuel is with us, and we are with him. Bethlehem has received us, and we will not leave her again—for, in Bethlehem, we have the Child, and Mary his Mother. Where else could we find riches like these that Bethlehem gives us? Oh! let us beseech this incomparable Mother to give us this Child of hers, (for he is our light, and our love, and our Bread of life,) now that we are about to approach the Altar, led by the Star of our faith. Let us, at once, open our treasures; let us prepare our gold, our frankincense, and our myrrh, for the sweet Babe, our King. He will be pleased with our gifts, and we know he never suffers himself to be outdone in generosity. When we have to return to our duties, we will, like the Magi, leave our hearts with our Jesus; and it shall be by another way, by a new manner of life, that we will finish our sojourn in this country of our exile, looking forward to that happy day, when life and light eternal will come and absorb into themselves the shadows of vanity and time, which now hang over us.
The office of this great day offers some particulars worthy of remark. In Cathedral and other principal Churches, after the Gospel has been sung, the approaching Feast of Easter Sunday is solemnly announced to the people. This custom, which dates from the earliest ages of the Church, shows both the mysterious connection which unites the great Solemnities of the year one with another, and the importance the Faithful ought to attach to the celebration of that which is the greatest of all, and the centre of all Religion. After having honoured the King of the universe on the Epiphany, we shall have to celebrate him, on the day which is now announced to us, as the conqueror of death.
Formerly at Mass, the Priest or Deacon, after singing the Gospel, turned towards the people, and announced the day of Easter in these terms :—“Let your charity know, my dearest brethren, that through the mercy of God and Jesus Christ, we shall celebrate the Pasch of the Lord on the . . . . of the month of . . . .”
Here is the origin of this very old custom. In the second century the day of Easter was appointed for all the Churches of the East and West; but there was no calendar yet. As the most able astronomers dwelt at Alexandria in Egypt, then a learned city, it was according to the astronomical tables sent every year by the patriarch of this city that the Sovereign Pontiff informed the metropolitans of the West regarding the day of Easter. In the council or synod that was held every year, each metropolitan pointed out the day of Easter for the coming year. The other bishops and priests present took a note of the date in their pocket-books, and, before the close of the festivals of Christmas time, announced it to their flocks. They selected for this purpose the day of the Epiphany, the last of the solemnities of Christmas time, and the last great festival before Easter, so that the people assembled thereon in greater numbers might have a better knowledge of the august occasion.
The following is the formula used for this solemn announcement.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF EASTER.
Know, dearly beloved Brethren, that by the mercy of God, as we have been rejoicing in the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so also do we announce unto you the joy of the Resurrection, of the same our Saviour. Septuagesima Sunday will be on the 31st day of January. Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the fast of most holy Lent will be on the 17th of February. On the 4th of April we shall celebrate with joy the holy Pasch of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Diocesan Synod will be held on the second Sunday after Easter. The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ will be on the 13th of May. The Feast of Pentecost on the 23rd of May. The Feast of Corpus Christi on the 3rd of June. On the 28th of November will occur the first Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom are honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Christmas, Vol. II, Edition 1868;
Catechism of Perseverance, Vol. IV, Ch. xxx, Dublin, 1884. Imprimatur; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
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“We have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him”
(St. Matth, ii. 2)