In the ancient Western Church and in the East, Epiphany was more important than the relative latecomer Christmas. Epiphany is from the Greek word for a divine “manifestation” or “revelation”. There are many “epiphanies” of God in the Scripture. Think, for example, of the burning bush encountered by Moses.
The Latin Church’s antiphons for Vespers reflect the tradition that Epiphany was thought to be not only the day the Magi came to adore Christ, but also the same day years later when He changed water into wine at Cana, and also when He was baptized by St. John in the Jordan. In each mysterious event, Jesus was revealed to be more than a mere man: He is man and God.
The Epiphany Collect was in the 1962 Missale Romanum and in ancient sacramentaries.
Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum stella duce revelasti,
ut qui iam te ex fide cognovimus,
usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur.
Stella duce is an ablative absolute. The adjective hodiernus means “of this day, today’s”. In older Latin, celsitudo is “lofty carriage of the body”. In later Latin it is used like the title “Highness”. In our liturgical context it is a divine attribute, God’s transcendent grandeur, glory.
SUPER LITERAL VERSION:
O God, who on this very day revealed your Only-begotten, a star as the guide,
that we, who have already come to know You by faith,
may be led all the way unto the beauty of Your glory to be contemplated.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
you revealed your Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star.
Lead us to your glory in heaven
by the light of faith.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL (2011):
O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy, that we, who know you already by faith,
may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.
In Latin prayers species (three syllables) often means “beauty”. It is also a technical, philosophical term about the way the human intellect apprehends things. Species has to do with the relationship between the thing known and our knowing power. A species transforms the mind of the one perceiving a thing. The object we consider acts upon our power of knowing. Simultaneously, the knowing power acts upon the object known. Our knowing power’s active and passive aspects meet in the species and the object of our consideration is known directly, without intermediaries. Easy.
This is what we are praying for, hoping for, living our earthly lives for: to see God face to face, directly and immediately.
In this life we know God only indirectly, by faith, our reason aided by the authority of revelation and by grace. This is St. Paul’s “dark glass” (1 Cor 13:12) through which we peer toward Him in longing.
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He is the Father’s Beauty. He is Truth and Beauty and Glory itself.
St. Hilary of Poitiers (d 367) conceived God’s divine attribute of glory as a transforming power which divinizes us by our contact with it. After Moses talked with God in the tent of the Ark, he wore a veil over his face, which became too bright to look at. We pray today, literally, to be brought “all the way to the beauty of glory (species celsitudinis)” of God “which is to be contemplated”. His beauty will act on us, increase our knowledge of Him and, therefore, our love for Him … for all eternity. We will be, all the more, the images He intended.
Christ could be understood to be the species celsitudinis of this prayer. Contemplate His truth and beauty. Christ is the true speaker and spoken truth of every prayer of every Mass.
If eternal Beauty transforms us, “divinizes” us, then beauty in this life changes us too.
Could a fostering of beauty in our churches help us reach people today in a way that arguments or other appeals may not?
Our liturgical worship of the Most High God must lead us to encounter beauty, truth, transcendent mystery. Holy Mass requires the finest architecture, vestments, music – everything – we can summon from human genius, love and labor. What we sing and say and do in church, and the church itself, ought to presage the liturgy of heaven, where the Church Triumphant enjoys already the Beatific Vision. Liturgy should be “epiphany”, wherein we encounter transforming mystery.
Let us celebrate every Mass in such a way that we become shoeless Moses before the burning bush which is never consumed. Let Mass make us Magi with sight and mind fixed in longing upon the beautiful, true and yet speechless Word, in whom transcendent glory was both hidden and revealed.