What Does the Prayer Really Say? 6 January – Epiphany (1962 Missale Romanum – Roman Station: San Pietro in Vaticano)
“Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for a divine “manifestation” or “revelation”. The antiphons for Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours reflect the ancient tradition that Epiphany was thought to be the day not only on which the Magi came to adore the Christ Child, but also the very day Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, and also the day He was baptized in the Jordan by St. John. All three events reveal Jesus as more than a mere man: He is God. There are many “epiphanies” or “theophanies” in Scripture, such as when Moses encountered God in the burning bush (Exodus 3).
The celebration of Epiphany stretches back to the Church’s earliest times. In the Greek East, Epiphany was of far greater importance than Christmas, which was a relative latecomer. In the Latin West, Christmas developed first, Epiphany later. In many countries people exchange presents on Epiphany, in imitation of the Magi bringing their gifts. Epiphany falls on 6 January, the twelfth day after Christmas, as in “On the Twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”, and also the title of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. In the reformed, post-Conciliar calendar Epiphany is usually transferred to a Sunday so that more people can attend that Mass. I think it is a mistake to transfer important feasts like Epiphany in Christmastide, and Ascension Thursday in Eastertide. These feasts are pegged to the key celebrations of Christmas and Easter for a reason. When we transfer these feasts to Sunday, we diminish the meaning of the entire liturgical year. As our obligations as Catholics are made ever more lax and easier to fulfill, a subtle signal is sent that none of our obligations, practices or teachings are important enough to warrant a sacrifice.
When you move Epiphany to Tenth Night we get short-changed.
Exquisite customs grace Epiphany. The most famous is the blessing of chalk used to hallow homes. On the lintels of the doors the priest writes with the chalk “20 + C + M + B + 09”, i.e., the year and initials of the names of the Magi indicated in Rituale Romanum: Gaspar (G and C being related), Melchior et Baltássar. The names of the Magi are traditional, not scriptural and some ancient authors thought there were as many as 24. Some say “C + M + B” stands for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat… May Christ bless this dwelling”. Though clever, that’s probably wrong. Water is blessed at Epiphany because of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. People give presents and enjoy King Cake and Lamb’s Wool (a drink made from cider or ale with roasted apples, sugar and spices). Apple trees were blessed by pouring cider on them! In Italy children wait for “la Befana” (from Italian “Epifania”). La Befana is old woman who was invited by the Magi to accompany them on their journey to find the newborn King. She declined because she was busy sweeping her house. Later, she realized her error followed the Magi but never caught up. Thus, la Befana is still searching for Jesus, zooming around Harry Potter-like on her broomstick. Santa-like, however, she visits homes and leaves toys and candy for good children, and the nasty lumps of coal for the naughty.
In today’s technological society, instead of coal she and jolly old St. Nick would do better to leave an obsolete cellular phone or maybe a first generation X-Box.
Santa gets cookies and milk by fireplaces to sustain him on his way, but Italians appropriately leave wine and oranges for la Befana.
Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum gentibus stella duce revelasti:
concede propitius; ut, qui iam te ex fide cognovimus,
usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur.
This prayer, in the 8th century Gregorian Sacramentary, survived the scissors of the Annibale Bugnini’s post-Conciliar reform as the Collect in the Novus Ordo. Your revelatory Lewis & Short Dictionary manifests celsitudo as, in older Latin, a “loftiness of carriage”. In later Latin it points to “majesty”, as in the title “Highness”. The ending of revelasti is “syncopated” (abbreviated) from revelavisti. Stella duce is an ablative absolute (duce is from dux). The adjective hodiernus, a, um, is “of this day, today’s”, so hodierna dies literally is “today’s day”, stronger than a simple “today”. Perhaps we could say, “this day of days” or “this of all days”.
O God, who this very day revealed your Only-begotten, a star having been the guide,
that we, who have already come to know You from faith,
may be led all the way unto the contemplation of the beauty of Your majesty.
In this life we know God only indirectly, by faith. This is St. Paul’s “dark glass” (1 Cor 13:12) through which we peer toward Him in longing. In the next life we will not need faith. We will have direct knowledge. In the phrase usque ad contemplandam speciem (a gerundive construction indicating purpose) we pray to be brought “all the way to the beauty” of God “which is to be contemplated”. Our encounter with His beauty will increase our knowledge of Him, and therefore our love, for all eternity. This is what we were made for: His glory and splendor. St. Hilary of Poitiers (+367) spoke of the gloria of God as a transforming power which will divinize us, conform us more and more to His image. In our Collect, note the move from faith to knowledge in the Beatific Vision. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He is the Beauty and Truth of the Father.
Our Catholic faith, our splendid liturgy both show forth God’s truth and beauty. Proper worship requires the most accurate, the most beautiful words, actions, and music we can summon from human genius. What we do and say in church should be a foretaste of heaven and the Beatific Vision. Think simply of the effect music has on people. Last year in National Review Michael Knox Beran wrote that, “if good music does not always save the soul, bad music never does. When the electric guitar sounds during the Sacrifice of the Mass, the cherubim weep” (“Mysterious Encounters – Benedict XVI resurrects the aesthetics of the Mass”, 24 Dec. 2007). Holy Church is reclaiming her great liturgical treasury, especially since Pope Benedict gave us Summorum Pontificum. The new translation of the Novus Ordo Missale Romanum will help.
We move ahead in the Mass. The gifts are on the white linen over the mensa. The altar is wreathed in the smoke of sacrificial incense. The priest, alter Christus, raises his hands and whispers…
Ecclesiae tuae, quaesumus, Domine, dona propitius intuere,
quibus non iam aurum, thus et myrrha profertur,
sed quod eisdem muneribus declaratur, immolatur et sumitur,
This oration from the ancient Gregorian Sacramentary, survived as today’s Super Oblata in the Novus Ordo. Notice how all those passive forms (-tur) create a powerful climax at the end when the prayer concludes suddenly with the Holy Name … like a little theophany
There are two words for “gift”: donum and munus. The L&S says that in classical Latin literature donum is associated with gifts of incense in a passage from the Aeneid of Virgil: dona turea (6, 225). The verb sumo is basically “to take, take up, lay hold of, assume.” In some contexts it can be also “consume”. In older English usage “to take” means “to eat, consume food”. Declaro is “to make clear, plain, evident (by disclosing, uncovering), to show, manifest.”
Graciously gaze down, we beseech You, O Lord, upon the gifts of Your Church,
in which gold, frankincense, and myrrh are no longer laid before You,
but rather that which is revealed, sacrificed and received by those same gifts,
The tokens brought by the Magi, representing the hopes of the nations of the earth, were “types”, foreshadows of the Lord who would offer Himself on the Cross. Fathers of the Church and medieval writers such as Jacobus de Voragine (+1298) wrote with creativity and insight about these symbols. Gold symbolizes the kingship of God to be mirrored in the purity of our hearts, so precious to Christ the King. Frankincense, annihilated by burning, symbolizes Christ’s divinity. Only God should receive sacrifices. The burning of something so precious reminds us of the immolation Christ submitted Himself to on our behalf. The total destruction of incense produces smoke, which rises like our prayers upward to God. During a Traditional High Mass as the priest incenses the altar he quietly recites, “May this incense, which Thou hast blessed, O Lord, ascend to Thee, and may Thy mercy descend upon us. Let my prayer, O Lord, be directed as incense in Thy sight: the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a door round about my lips. May my heart not incline to evil words, to make excuses for sins. May the Lord enkindle within us the fire of His love, and the flame of everlasting charity. Amen.” This prayer was done away with in the Novus Ordo, as were many direct references to sin. Myrrh, a balm used to prepare the bodies of the dead, underscores Christ’s humanity through which He suffered and rose from death.
At last we have received Communion. Returning to our places we consider the ineffable encounter with mystery taking place even as our thoughts shift to returning to the activities of the world.
Praesta, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus:
ut quae solemni celebramus officio,
purificatae mentis intellegentia consequamur.
This ancient prayer did not make the cut in the Novus Ordo. Intellegentia is the “power of discerning or understanding”. Ancient authors such as St. Jerome (+420) and John Cassian (+435) use it for the ability to see the deeper, symbolic meaning of Scripture, allegorical meanings.
Grant, we beseech You, Almighty God,
that we may attain with the understanding of a purified mind,
the things we are celebrating with solemn observance.
Participation at Holy Mass should be truly full, conscious and active. We actively engage all we see and hear so as to receive what God offers through our Holy Church’s sacred mysteries. We will have our own “epiphanies” during Mass. We will have moments of revelation about ourselves and the state of our soul, or what we ought to do in life.
Remember that the Word, who is God eternal, became flesh also in order to reveal us more fully to ourselves (cf. Gaudium et spes 22). In the life to come, only the pure may see God. Is this not enough of a motive to participate actively, with interiorly active receptivity, in this encounter with mystery? Seek cleansing of your sins through confession and sacramental absolution. The reality of our unavoidable judgment must at some point dawn upon us like a thunderclap. When you finally grasp that you must one day die and face judgment, you will understand why Holy Mass must be nothing other than an encounter with mystery, and not a distracting celebration of ourselves.
When you go to Mass, go like Moses. He removed his sandals before the burning bush. He peered through the cleft in the rock as God passed. Be like Paul peering through the shadowy glass. Imitate the Magi, whose penetrating sight fixed on nothing other than the coming of the mysterious King, in whose perfect image something of the invisible Father is revealed.