What Does the Prayer Really Say? Epiphany
Epiphany, from the Greek word for a “manifestation”, celebrates different ways by which Christ is revealed to be God as well as man. The are many “epiphanies” of God in the Scripture, such as the burning bush seen by Moses, the sight of Jesus by the Magi, the changing of wine to water at Cana, the Transfiguration, etc. The modern celebration Epiphany developed from a very ancient and convoluted history. In the East it was an extremely important feast before the introduction of celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. In the West, the Nativity was first and celebration of Epiphany came later. The determination of the date of Epiphany is equally as complex as the meaning of the feast. Epiphany technically falls on the twelfth day after Christmas. After some fiddling with the modern liturgical calendar, it now can be transferred in most places to a Sunday. This is perhaps a good thing, since the ancient and mysterious Epiphany is now receiving more attention than it did during the time when it was observed more strictly on the sixth day of January.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum stella duce revelasti,
ut qui iam te ex fide cognovimus,
usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur.
Revelasti is a so-called “sycopated” or shortened form of revelavisti. Stella duce is one of our old friends an ablative absolute. Many students of Latin will fall into the trap of translating these into English using a phrase beginning with “with”: “with a star as leader”. That is not correct to do, since it gives an impression of accompaniment rather than a existing condition or circumstance at the time of the action of the main verb.
O God, who today revealed your Only-begotten, a star having been the guide,
that we, who have already come to know you from faith,
may be lead all the way unto the contemplation of the beauty of your majesty.
I have decided here to stick simply to “Only-begotten” without “Son”, for it is obvious what is going on. Since hodiernus, -a, -um is an adjective for “of this day, today’s”, hodierna dies literally is something like “today’s day.” It is a bit stronger than just “today”. Perhaps the desire was to underscore the mysterious nature of the feast of Epiphany and the three events that traditionally are associated with it. In the Magnificat antiphon for Second Vespers of Epiphany we hear that this was the day when the Magi came to adore Christ, Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, and He was baptized by John. In each case Jesus is revealed to be more than mere man. Celsitudo refers to loftiness of carriage in older Latin. Here its late Latin usage clearly gives us a meaning of majesty: “Highness” is a royal title.
More interesting is the phrase usque ad contemplandam speciem. The word species has so vast a meaning that this brief offering is not place to explore it closely. Suffice that species, along with often meaning “beauty” in our Latin prayers, is a technical philosophical term having to do with the way that the human intellect apprehends things. Species, frequently also called forma (both words for “beauty, splendor”) is the determinant of the mind in the process of knowledge. It is a relationship between the thing known and the faculty of the one who perceives it that allows us to perceive objects directly without a bridge or intermediary. As the old scholastic axiom says, “Quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur…. Whatever is received, is received in the mode of the one receiving it” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica I, Q. xii, art. 4). The species also transform, in a sense, the mind of the one perceiving a thing. It is that by which an object is known. The object known acts on the knowing faculty, and the knowing faculty acts on the object known simultaneously. Active and passive in regard to the mind come together and the object is known directly. This is what we are praying for: we want to see God face to face. We want direct knowledge of Him. So, in this phrase usque ad contemplandam speciem (a gerundive construction which indicates purpose) we are praying to be brought “all the way in order to contemplate the beauty” of God. The glory and splendor of this beauty, for which we were made by God, will transform us, making us more and more like what God is by our contemplation of it for ever and ever. The Fathers of the Church, such as Hilary of Poitiers, spoke of the glory of God that transforms us, divinizes us. This prayer is so amazing! In the first part of that ut clause (another kind of purpose construction) we acknowledge that we have already come to know God (the Father) through faith. In the second part we pray to be brought into the transforming sight of God in heaven. This signals a move from faith, by which we walk in our earthly pilgrimage, to knowledge: there will be no more faith in heaven, for faith is our stance before those things which are true but which we do not yet have complete knowledge. Once we are in the sight of God, the Beatific Vision, we will no longer have faith. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God, He is the expressed Beauty and Truth of the Father. Christ could be seen as the species of this prayer. In this prayer, the knowledge of God is linked to the contemplation of His beauty. Here we find a connection between truth and beauty, for just as faith aims at apprehension of the truth, so will our eternal regard of God’s beauty in heaven, where Truth and Beauty are not to be distinguished.
This prayer also underscores our human need for beauty in this earthly life. More and more the influence of post-modernism, particularly in education, has made it harder and harder for people to grasp the existence of objective truth. The ugliness of images that flood our sight, and hideous noise our ears, numbs us to beauty and calm. The discord and restlessness they provoke have little to do with God. Dante in the Paradiso of the Divine Comedy invents new words like “transhumanized” to describe what happens to us through the beatific vision. In the Paradiso, Piccarda says, “In His will is our peace.” He is drawing on both the theology of Thomas and of Bonaventure. The later wrote, in the Journey of the Soul into God, that love finally gives rest to the intellect.
The current dissolution of formal education in fundamentals and tools of learning has rendered many people incapable of following easily a linear argument to a conclusion that they will accept because it must perforce be true: “It is true for you, maybe,” they often respond. Could the proper use of and fostering of beauty in our churches help us reach people in a way that the systematic approach and arguments may not be able to effect at this time? Once people have seen God’s truth shining through beauty (of music, motion, language, environment) they can be reached in other ways. The Church has given two things as a common inheritance for all mankind: art and saints. In art, God’s truth and beauty are reflected in inanimate creation. In the lives of saints, His truth and beauty shines forth in living creation. In both, we find the beauty which points to the truth. The beauty of the truth and the truth of beauty can permeate every dimension of our lives just now as it will in heaven. Think of the great document of the Holy Father, concerning moral theology, called Veritatis splendor… The Splendor of the Truth.
Our splendid Catholic faith and our magnificent liturgy show forth the truth and beauty of God in a way that urges, begs, requires, obliges us to find the most accurate and beautiful words, actions, music and adornment humanly possible. What we say and do in church is a foretaste of heaven and the beatific vision. The Church must once again reclaim her role as the greatest patron of the arts in human history. Beauty in liturgy, in sense, can be a manifestation of the divine: an “epiphany” of a sort. In a new translation of the Missal, our bishops can give us this precious gift: a new glimpse of God through beauty and truth, like shoeless Moses’ sight of God in the burning bush, like the infant Jesus fixed in the gaze of the Magi.
you revealed you Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star.
Lead us to your glory in heaven
by the light of faith.