VIGIL of Epiphany

What Does the Prayer Really Say? Vigil of Epiphany

On 20 December Pope Benedict XVI addressed the members of the Sistine Chapel Choir about the importance of sacred music and liturgical celebration. He said an important thing (my translation): “The Pope’s liturgy, the liturgy in (the Basilica) of St. Peter, must be the model liturgy for the world. You know that with television, with radio, today many people in all the regions of the world are able to follow this liturgy. They learn from here, or, they don’t learn from here, what liturgy is, how one ought to celebrate the liturgy.” Now, this seems an obvious point. But Benedict is changing the way papal liturgies are celebrated. He is reclaiming the tradition of Gregorian chant and a cappella music. “Tradition is convinced that choirs of ‘white voices’ (trans. “boys choirs”) can cause us to hear an echo of the angelic song.” The Pope is reintroducing a much stronger dimension of contemplation, of adoration. In Benedict’s Christmas address to the Roman Curia on 22 December he said (again my translation): “In the period of the liturgical reform, Mass and (Eucharistic) adoration outside of Mass were often seen as being in contrast to each other: the Eucharistic bread was not given to be contemplated, but to be eaten, according to one objection spread around then. In the experience of the prayer of the Church, the lack of sense of such estrangement has by now been made plain. Long ago St. Augustine had already said: … “But let no one eat this flesh unless they will have first adored it; … we would sin in not adoring it” (cf. en. ps. 98,9 in CCL 39:1385). In fact, it is not the case that in the Eucharist we receive simply some thing. It is a meeting, the bringing into unity of persons; the Person, however, who comes to meet us and desires to be united with us is the Son of God.” Veteran WDTPRSers know I have recounted what we were harangued with in seminary by the less than liturgically traditional faculty. For example, in their view of sacred music, “Gregorian chant ought to be seen and not heard!”, and in reference to Eucharistic adoration: “Jesus said ‘take and eat’, not ‘sit and look!” They consistently got everything exactly wrong. And now Pope Benedict has come.

Epiphany comes from the Greek word for a divine “manifestation” or “revelation”. The Latin Church’s liturgy for this feast, especially in its antiphons for Vespers, reflect the tradition that Epiphany was thought to be the day not only when the Magi came to adore Christ, but also the day Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, and also when He was baptized by St. John. Each of these three mysteries reveals Jesus as more than a mere man: He is the man God. There are many “epiphanies” or “theophanies” in Scripture (e.g., the burning bush, the Transfiguration). The history of the feast of Epiphany is complex, stretching back to the Church’s earliest times. In the East, Epiphany was of far greater importance than the relative latecomer Christmas. In the West, Christmas came first and the celebration of Epiphany developed later. In many today Epiphany, not Christmas, is when people exchange gifts in imitation of the Magi. In truth, Epiphany falls on 6 January, the twelfth day after Christmas, as in “On the Twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”, a song some think comes from Ireland during the time when Catholicism was illegal. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night refers to Epiphany.

Exquisite customs grace this day, including giving gifts and enjoying King Cake and Lamb’s Wool (a drink made from cider or ale with roasted apples, sugar and spices). People blessed apple trees by pouring a libation of cider on them. There is a special blessing of chalk used for hallowing homes: on the lintels of the doors you write “20 + C + M + B + 06”, the year with the initials for the names of the Magi found in the older Rituale Romanum, Gaspar (G and C being related), Melchior et Baltássar. A few years ago a WDTPRSer wrote suggesting that CMB is really “Christus Mansionem Benedicat… May Christ bless this dwelling”, but is so only by coincidence. The names of the Magi are traditional and are not in Scripture. Some ancient authors thought there were as many as 24 Magi… which would fill up a lintel pretty fast. Sometime people call the three stars of the “belt” of the constellation Orion “the Three Kings”. In Italy children wait for “La Befana” (from Italian “Epifania”), an old woman invited by the Magi to accompany them on their journey to find the newborn King. The old woman declined because she was sweeping her house, but she realized her error followed the Magi, who were far ahead of her. She is still searching for Jesus, riding her broomstick. Santa-like, she visits homes leaving toys and candy for good children, and the proverbial lumps of coal for the naughty. Santa gets cookies and milk by fireplaces to sustain him on his way, but Italians appropriately leave wine and oranges for La Befana.

In years past we examined the prayers for Epiphany’s Mass during the day. However, in the 2002 editio typica of the Missale Romanum there is now a new Vigil Mass with its own texts. There was no Vigil in the earlier editions. Since we have never examined these new Vigil prayers, we can look at all three and find out what they really say.

COLLECT (2002MR) “in Vigilia
Corda nostra, quaesumus, Domine,
tuae maiestatis splendor illustret,
quo mundi huius tenebras transire valeamus,
et perveniamus ad patriam claritatis aeternae.

This Collect or “Opening prayer” was based closely on another in the ancient Gelasian Sacramentary for the Mass “in vigiliis de theophania”, “theophany” or “manifestation of God” being another way to express “epiphania”.

Our nifty Lewis & Short Dictionary makes us aware of the subtlties of transeo. This verb can be anything from “cross over” to “pierce, transfix” and “surpass”. Usually we are helped with a preposition to find its meaning. Here we simply have an accusative object temebras which leaves me with the sense of “pierce through”. There is a subtle contrast in trans + eo and per + venio which in their components are very similar but which diverge in meaning, the former indicating the process of the movement, the later referring to its completion. This is elegant. Notice also the three word splendor, maiestas, and claritas which are nearly synonymous and refer all to God’s gloria (Greek doxa and Hebrew kabod), the glorious transforming characteristic of God’s sight and presence which we will experience for all eternity in heaven. We have seen this concept many times in WDTPRS but here the words, stacked one upon another, bring God’s glory into special focus.

May the splendor of Your majesty,
O Lord, we beseech You, light up our hearts,
by which we may be able to pass through the shadows of this world,
and come through to the fatherland of eternal glory.

We are on a journey through this vale of tears, striving with our might to reach our longed for destination, our heavenly homeland. In St. Augustine’s (+430) theology, Christ Himself is the patria, the Fatherland, as well as being the way to get there, the via. He is “light from light” shining in the darkness, who alone can illuminate our lives. Only with the help of grace can we pass through the shadowy tangle of this earthly existence. Just as a light pierces through darkness, grace knifes through the black shadows like a highly focused beam into our hearts, illuminating them. In turn, perhaps, our own hearts, shining with God’s presence, then can become beacons for others to follow all the way to Christ. Each one of us might be able to be both guiding star and Magi who lead to Christ and then, finding Him, return safe to our intended homeland.

SUPER OBLATA (2002MR) “in Vigilia
Suscipe, quaesumus, Domine, munera nostra,
pro apparitione Unigeniti Filii tui
et primitiis gentium dicata,
ut et tibi celebretur laudatio
et nobis fiat aeterna salvatio.

There may be herein a trace of Augustine of Hippo (+430) who in two sermons on Epiphany (s. 204 and 373) used the phrase primitiis gentium. Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153) does the same in an Epiphany sermon (s. 3) in a sentence beginning Hodie ergo apparitio Domini celebratur. Otherwise, this is probably a new composition. The only tricky word is pro, which can mean about 15 different things. Take note of the parallel et… et structure in the last two lines: dative + passive verb + subject noun with a –tio. Frankly, I am not very impressed with this Latin prayer. The pro leaves one a little confused, particularly as it is applied to both an action (apparitio) and then things (primitiae) which is clunky, in my opinion. I don’t object to anything the prayer expresses, but the Latin and structure of the thought is awkward.

Receive, O Lord, we implore, our gifts
dedicated in commemoration of the appearance of Your Only-begotten Son
and of the first representatives of the gentiles,
so that both a rite of praise may be celebrated for You
and eternal salvation maybe be brought about for us.

We move now quickly to the prayer of gratitude after Communion and the purification of the vessels, before we are sent back out into the world with the priest’s blessing.

POST COMMUNION (2002MR) “in Vigilia
Sacra alimonia renovati,
tuam, Domine, misericordiam deprecamur,
ut semper in mentibus nostris tuae appareat stella iustitiae
et noster in tua sit confessione thesaurus.

The phrase, “ut semper in mentibus nostris tuae appareat stella iustitiae et noster in tua sit confessione thesaurus” is in a prayer for the day of Epiphany in the ancient Gelasian Sacramentary. L&S says that alimonia means “nourishment, food, sustenance, support”. Similar phrases with alimonia begin Post communion prayers on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and on Christ the King. The word confessio doesn’t refer our making sacramental confessions, but rather to our action of openly professing faith in God (tua confessione) by word and deed.

Having been renewed by means of sacred sustenance,
we plead for Your mercy, O Lord,
so that the star of Your justice may always appear in our minds
and that our treasure may be in the open profession of You.

This prayer makes reference to the star that guided the Magi to the crib of the infant King. The star is identified with justice, a theme in the liturgy for Epiphany: in Psalm 72, used at Mass on the day itself, we read: “Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son! May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice!” In this final prayer of Mass the star foreshadows the sublime reference to the star in the first prayer of Mass on the next day: “O God, who today revealed your Only-begotten, a star having been the guide (stella duce) …”. The gifts brought by the Magi to the Christ Child are embodied in the word “treasure” although, for us, far greater riches are to be gleaned from an open and faithful profession of faith in Christ.

In this dark day of secular relativism, we need ever more urgently for our minds and hearts to be illuminated, both so that we may see clearly in the shadows and also so that others may see us and, in that sight, be so moved as to take up the same journey. We need the light of truth to help us see the things of the world clearly and fairly. We must untangle what they mean and, in many cases, what they do not mean. In justice and equity we should hear what others are really saying or, on the other hand, really trying to say when they express themselves poorly. In this way we will engage the world and those whom we encounter in truth and justice, without which we cannot love in the manner the Christ Child, Christ Victim, revealed.

The WDTPRS series aims to help you explore more fully and love more deeply the content of the prayers of Holy Mass. Fr. Zuhlsdorf welcomes e-mail ( and letters sent in care of The Wanderer. Visit the Archive and the Blog ( Fr. Z is Moderator of the ASK FATHER Question Box ( and Catholic Online Forum ( This is sixth year of the series.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks, Fr. Z, for this beautiful new “in Vigilia” addition for our upcoming celebration of the Epiphany.

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