Friday, January 06, 2012

Twelfth Night -- The Epiphany of the Lord

In the traditional calendar today is the 12th day of Christmas, the Epiphany of the Lord. When I was a boy we also called it Little Christmas or Women's Christmas. I used to think those terms were exclusive to our family but apparently they are old Irish terms for the feast that survived in my family's North American sojourn.

The long quotation that follows is the Blessed Cardinal Schuster's history of the feast taken from his Liber Sacramentorum - The Sacramentary:

Epiphany means “appearance” or “manifestation,” and among the Eastern Christians had originally the same significance as Christmas in Rome. It was the festival of the eternal Word, clothed in the flesh, revealing himself to mankind. Three different phases of this historical manifestation were especially venerated – viz., the adoration of the Magi at Bethlehem, the changing of the water into wine at Cana, and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.

In the East special emphasis was laid on the scene at the Jordan, when the Holy Ghost overshadowed the Saviour in the form of a dove, and the eternal Father proclaimed him from heaven as his beloved Son. From the time of St John, the Gnostic heresy attributed great importance to this episode on account of its christology, maintaining that only then was the divine nature united to the human nature of Jesus, to leave it again at the moment of his Crucifixion. That baptism was, therefore, according to the Gnostics, the true divine birth of Jesus; consequently it was celebrated by them with the greatest splendour. It was against this doctrine that St John wrote in his first Epistle: Hic venit (Jesus Christ) per aquam et sanguinem, non in aqua solum, sed in aqua et sanguine; – that is to say, Jesus came into the world as the Saviour and as the Son of God, and this not merely in the waters of the Jordan, but from the very moment of his Incarnation, when he took upon himself our human body and blood.

In all probability the Catholics, following the example of the Evangelist, wished from the first to set against the Gnostic baptismal manifestation the temporal birth at Bethlehem; hence the feast had a very complex signification, inasmuch as it was desired to retain also the Gospel dates of the baptism and of the marriage at Cana, relegating them, however, to a secondary place as being similar solemn and authentic manifestations of the divine nature of Jesus. At Rome, in an atmosphere extremely practical and altogether foreign to the mystic etherealism of the Eastern world, the historical recurrence of the Nativity of our Lord came to occupy so prominent a place in the popular mind that it is still the predominating idea throughout the whole of the Christmas Liturgy.

There was, it is true, some uncertainty regarding its date, which led to a partition of the festival. On the banks of the Tiber the feast of January 6 was anticipated by two weeks, to the greater honour of the Nativity; but the ancient Theophania retained its place, although deprived of its full significance, since the crib of Bethlehem, by its power of attraction, gave greater prominence to the Adoration of the Magi, at the expense of the original idea of the baptism in the Jordan.

It is probable that in the third century Rome was still faithfully following the primitive Eastern tradition and administering solemn baptism on the day of the Theophania . Hippolytus, in fact, delivered an address to the neophytes (Είς τά αγία Θεοφάνεια) just as in the very ancient Coptic Calendar in which today's feast is called dies baptismi sanctificati. In the time of St Gregory Nazianzen the Greeks named it the Feast of the Holy Lights – In Sancta Lumina-- because baptism constitutes the supernatural illumination of the soul.

The third commemoration assigned to today's feast is of the first miracle performed by our Lord at the marriage at Cana. It is reckoned among the manifestation of Christ because the Gospel miracles supply the visible proof of the divine nature of Jesus. St Paulinus of Nola and St Maximus of Turin draw attention to the three-fold aspect of the feast of the Epiphany in terms exactly similar to those which the Roman Church employs in the grand antiphon of the Office at dawn. Hodia coelesti Sponso juncta est ecclesia-- mystical nuptials typified by those of Cana-- quoniam in Jordano lavit Christus ejus crimina-- baptism for the remission of sins--currunt cum muneribus magi ad regales nuptias-- the Adoration of the divine Infant-- et ex aqua facto vino laetantur convivae-- the miracle of Cana.

That which surprises us is that these primitive features of the Eastern Epiphany feast are found to have penetrated more or less in Rome into the festival of December 25 itself, so much so that Pope Liberius (325-366), in a sermon delivered at St Peter's on Christmas Day, on the occasion when Marcellina, sister of St Ambrose, received from his hands the virginal veil, said to her, among other things: “Thou, O daughter, hast desired an excellent marriage. Thou seest what a multitude of people is here assembled for the birthday of thy Spouse, and no one of them all goes away unsatisfied. He indeed it is who, being invited to the wedding feast, changed the water into wine, and who with five loaves and two fishes fed four thousand men in the desert.”

The station at St Peter's is inspired by the same thought as that of Christmas Day. In Rome the greater festivals – always excepting the very lengthy ceremonies of the Easter baptism – are celebrated at the Pastor Ecclesiae whose basilica is the sheepfold of the Roman flock. The Ordines Romani prescribed down to the thirteenth century that after Mass the Pope should put on his tiara and return on horse-back to the Lateran. Later on, however, the Pontiffs preferred to remain at the Vatican for the second Vespers also, at which they were present in a scarlet cope and wearing a golden mitre. The custom of the Pope himself celebrating the stational Mass on this day is witnessed to, down to the end of the fourteenth century, in the Ordo of Bishop Pietro Amelio of Sinigaglia, in which the sole exception to the rule is in the case of the Pontiff being prevented from officiating either by some malady or by the rigour of winter weather.

There is more on the Mass liturgy of the day but it largely repeats what you can find in your Missal. This is his final paragraph on the day:

The interior life of a Christian is the reproduction of the life of Jesus; thus the object of the Church in placing before us the annual cycle of feasts is not merely to commemorate the great historical epochs in the history of our redemption, but also to reproduce in our souls their spiritual teaching. Hence in the Night Office of this feast of the Epiphany we do not so much adore the Christ who showed himself twenty centuries ago to the Magi, but rather the Christ who has revealed himself to us, too, who are now living. In a word, it is not alone the historical Epiphany which we desire to celebrate, but we associate ourselves also with that other subjective and personal Epiphany which is manifested in the soul of every believer to whom Jesus appears by means of our holy Faith.


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