What Does the Prayer Really Say? Epiphany
The cycle of Christmas was traditionally a magnificent drama in three acts. These different stages of the cycle reveal different aspects of the Incarnation of the Word. During Advent we are taught by Holy Mother Church about the prophecies of the one who was to come. During Christmastide, we see the Word made flesh finally come to light in His birth at Bethlehem. During the time following Epiphany, which before the post-Conciliar changes to the Church’s calendar was its own liturgical season, we were given affirmations of the divinity of Christ. We would move from prophecies and stars and magi to the person of the Lord Himself, revealing who He was in all that He said and did. The Gospels for the Sundays after Epiphany always recounted the miracles that the Lord worked. At Cana, for example, Jesus worked His first public miracle by changing water into wine as those using the older Roman Missal hear in the Gospel for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. The Gospel uses the word ephanerosen “manifest” to describe this in John 2:11. The antiphon for second vespers, as a matter of fact, recalled three manifestations of Christ’s divinity as occurring on this day: “Tribus miraculis ornatum diem sanctum colimus: hodie stella magos duxit ad praesepium; hodie vinum ex aqua factum est ad nuptias; hodie in Iordane a Ioanne Christus baptizari voluit, ut salvaret nos, alleluia….We solemnly observe this day ornamented with three miracles: today the star led the magi to the manger; today wine was changed to water at the wedding; today Christ desired to be baptized by John in the river Jordan so that He might save us, alleluia.” This is why the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated in such close proximity to Epiphany.
Epiphany, with its attendant octave, was once very important in the Church’s liturgical calendar. On the Sunday during the octave the Feast of the Holy Family was celebrated. In many places Epiphany was a Holy Day of Obligation. There was a season of Epiphany, following the Christmas Season, and the Sundays with their green vestments were reckoned “after Epiphany.” Epiphany technically falls on the twelfth day after Christmas and thus it is called also “Twelfth Night.” It can now be transferred in most places to a Sunday. As a result, the ancient and mysterious Epiphany feast is receives more attention than it did during the time when it was observed more strictly on the sixth day of January. The octave is no longer observed now since the reform of the calendar. It departed by another road. In some ways the importance of the feast is greatly reduced as a result, in my opinion.
This feast was extremely important in the ancient Church, far more so than the relative late-comer Christmas. The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek for “manifestation.” Traditionally the Church marked by this day the different times when the divinity of Christ was revealed. Also, if at Christmas Christ was revealed to the Jews especially in the persons of the shepherds who received the angels message, at Epiphany He is revealed to the Gentiles who are personified by the magi. One recalls Isaiah 60: 1-6 which gave a prophecy that the kings of the earth would adore God and all the nations would serve Him. “O Jerusalem…the strength of the Gentiles shall come to Thee. The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense and showing forth praise to the Lord.”
Many customs are associated with this solemn feast. In the Greek Church there was a special blessing of holy water which involved a procession to a lake or stream. In the older form of the Roman Ritual there is a blessing for gold, frankincense and myrrh. If you happen to have some myrrh around the house, you could take them to the parish and ask your priest to bless it. There is also a special blessing for chalk to be used on Epiphany. Homes were blessed and the lintels of the doors were inscribed with the year and initial letters of the traditional names of the three magi in the format: 20 + C + M + B + 02 In many places gifts are exchanged on Epiphany rahter than Christmas. Among the different foods for this holy day is the well-known King Cake and Lamb’s Wool from roasted apples and cider. The magi themselves are rather obscure figures. We are accustomed now to think of them as three in number bearing the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Custom even has the relics of the Three Kings situated in the cathedral of Cologne which might raise the questioning eyebrow even of the most pious. There is a magnificent shrine to them in that cathedral, repleat with inlaid silver and champleve enamel panels by Nicholas of Verdun (1190-1205) In the ancient Church there was no agreement on the number of the magi and some sources posit there were as many as twenty-four.
Now for our…
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Ecclesiae tuae, quaesumus, Domine, dona propitius intuere,
quibus non iam aurum, thus et myrrha profertur,
sed quod eisdem muneribus declaratur, immolatur et sumitur,
This prayer happily remained the same as the secret for Epiphany as found in the 1962 editio typica of the Roman Missal. Notice all the passive forms (-tur). They provide an excellent internal cohesion as well as an effective climax at the end when we hear the Holy Name.
Graciously gaze down, we beseech Thee, O Lord, upon the gifts of Thy Church,
in which gold, frankincense, and myrrh are no longer laid before Thee,
but rather that which is revealed, sacrificed and received by means of those same gifts,
You will right away notice that we have two different Latin words for “gift” herein: donum and munus. The fine Lewis & Short Dictionary lets us know that donum is associated in classical Latin literature 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 “consume” and a raft of other meanings as well. Intueor is a deponent verb, meaning “to look upon” as well as “to give attention to.” Given the humble tone of the prayer and the gestures of offering gifts upward to God, I choose to render intueor here as “gaze down upon.” The essential meaning of declaro is “to make clear, plain, evident (by disclosing, uncovering), to show, manifest, declare.” I think “reveal” is appropriate.
accept the offerings of your Church,
not gold, frankincense and myrrh,
but the sacrifice and food they symbolize:
Jesus Christ, who is Lord for ever and ever.
In our prayer today we find the deepest meaning of the gifts we offer at the Lord’s altar, which is Calvary in our midst. The tokens brought by the magi, representing all the hopes of the nations of the earth, were merely types, foreshadowing the one who was to offer Himself on the Cross. What we give is far more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet those symbols still can give us an orientation when we see the priest, alter Christus, raising our offerings to God in preparation for their consecration and transubstantiation. Gold, may symbolize for us at this Mass of the Epiphany the kingship of God, which must be mirrored in the purity our hearts, so precious to Christ, where He and He alone must have His throne as King. Frankincense, symbolizes His divinity. Only God should receive sacrifices of the sweet-smelling and precious burnt offering, reminds us of the utter immolation He submitted Himself to on our behalf. Its destruction produces smoke, which rises like our prayers upward to God. Myrrh, the balm used to prepare the bodies of the dead for the tomb, reminds us of Christ’s perfect humanity which endured suffering and the grave for our salvation. The offertory time of the Mass, with its super oblata, helps the attentive Christian dispose himself properly for the sacred action to follow. The offerings on the altar become Christ, truly present. But they are also ourselves. We are to identify ourselves with Christ’s sacrifice. What we give him should be at least as valuable as the gold, frankincense and myrrh spoken of in the prayer.