WDTPRS – Epiphany

Epiphany is from the Greek word for a divine “manifestation” or “revelation”. The Church’s liturgy for the 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 same day years later when Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, and also when He was baptized by St. John at the Jordan.

Images of these three mysteries has been maintained in the 2002 edition of the Missale Romanum in the artwork on the facing page for the texts, artwork as I have said in the past that is every bit as good as that which Mommy might proudly display on the refrigerator fixed on with magnets of plastic fruit.

The “art” for the Missale is based on the mosaics of a new chapel of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace built during the Jubilee. In any event, in each of these three mysteries Jesus is revealed to be more than a mere man. He is man and God. The are many “epiphanies” of God in the Scripture, for example, the burning bush seen by Moses, the Transfiguration, and the above mentioned. The history of the modern feast of Epiphany is ancient and complicated history. In the East Epiphany was an extremely important feast far more important than the relative latecomer Christmas. In the West, the Nativity developed first and the celebration of Epiphany came later. In many places in the world, Epiphany, and not Christmas, is the day to exchange gifts, in imitation of the Magi. Epiphany truly really falls on the 6th of January, the twelfth day after Christmas (as in “On the Twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” – which some think comes from Ireland during the time when Catholicism was illegal). Twelfth Night as in Shakespeare’s play, refers to Epiphany. In the post-Conciliar calendar, it can be transferred to Sunday and perhaps this is good (though I suspect it isn’t): the ancient and mysterious feast now gets more attention than it did when it was observed strictly on January 6th. Today’s “Opening Prayer” for Mass, or more properly Collect, was in the 1962MR and in other ancient sacramentaries. Enjoy the sound of the Latin by reading it aloud, with the fine rhythmic clausula at the end.

Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum stella duce revelasti,
concede propitius,
ut qui iam te ex fide cognovimus,
usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur.

ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
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.

Well that is what ICEL gave us. But is that what the prayer really says? I suspect not. We are justifiably suspicious when the translation is shorter than the Latin original (which just doesn’t happen, friends). In case you are trying to figure out the ending of revelasti it is a syncopated (shortened) form of revelavisti. Stella duce is an ablative absolute (duce is from dux). Don’t fall into the trap of translating an ablative absolute beginning with “with” (e.g., “with a star as leader”). “With” gives an impression of accompaniment rather than the existing circumstance at the time of the action of the main verb. 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 day’s” or “this of all days”. To my Latin ear this emphasizes the weight of the feast of Epiphany with its three events that are traditionally associated with it. Celsitudo, in your revelatory Lewis & Short Dictionary, indicates in older Latin a loftiness of carriage while in later Latin it points to majesty, as in the title “Highness”.


O God, who today revealed your Only-begotten, a star having been the guide,
graciously grant,
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.

There is depth in the phrase usque ad contemplandam speciem. The noun species (three syllables) is too broad in meaning for this narrow space. Species often means “beauty” in prayers, but it is also a technical philosophical term about the way the human intellect apprehends things. Species, (frequently also called forma, another word for “beauty, splendor”) points at a relationship between the thing known and our knowing power. It allows us to perceive objects directly and without a bridge or intermediary. A famous philosophical adage says, “Quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur…. Whatever is received, is received in the mode of the one doing the receiving” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, q. xii, a. 4). Species has a transforming effect on the mind of the one perceiving a thing. The object being considered acts upon our power of knowing, and this knowing power acts simultaneously on the object known. So, our knowing power’s “active and passive” dimensions come together in the process and the object of consideration is known directly, without intermediaries. This is what we are praying for, hoping for, living our earthly lives for: we want to see God face to face, directly and immediately. In this life, we know God indirectly, by faith, our intellect being aided by 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. In the next life we will not need faith because we will have direct knowledge. In this phrase usque ad contemplandam speciem (a gerundive construction indicating purpose) we are praying to be brought “all the way to the beauty” of God “which is to be contemplated”. This vision of 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. They will transform us, making us more and more like what God is by our contemplation of them for ever and ever. The Fathers of the Church, such as Hilary of Poitiers (+367), spoke of the glory of God as a transforming power which divinizes us by conforming us more and more to His image. In our prayer, there is a 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. Christ could be seen as the species of this prayer. In heaven, God’s Truth and Beauty are indistinguishable and we will see them directly and be thus transformed during all eternity.

This prayer has meaning for our earthly lives: we need beauty now as well. The influence of post-modernism, particularly in education, has made it harder and harder for people to grasp the existence of objective truth. Ugly images flood our vision, hideous noises our ears. This numbs us to beauty and therefore apprehensions of truths. In a post-modern view everything relative, we cannot really know things with certainty nor can we communicate them, and nothing is admitted as unchanging or eternal. The discord and restlessness this provokes in life has nothing to do with God. But it has nothing to do with man either, at least in the way he was made and what he is intended for. Dante in the Paradiso of the Divine Comedy invents a new word, “transhumanize”, to describe what happens to us through the Beatific Vision. In our direct contact with God we are simultaneously made more and more like God and also more and more what we are supposed to be, God’s images. In being “transhumanized” in this world and the next, His grace perfects our nature, not destroys it. In this life, holiness and the life of virtues is what does this. Think of the document of the Holy Father, concerning moral theology, called Veritatis splendor… The Splendor of the Truth.

If eternal beauty transforms man, “divinize” him, then in this life beauty (Truth’s echo) can change him as well. So will ugliness. 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, God’s truth and beauty shines forth in living creatures, His images. In both, we find the beauty which points to the truth. The beauty of the truth and the truth of beauty can affect every dimension of our lives now, in anticipation of heaven.

Our true Catholic faith and our splendid liturgy show forth the truth and beauty of God in a way that urges us to find the most accurate and beautiful words, actions, music we can possibly summon from human genius, labor and love. What we say and do in church ought to be 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 can be a manifestation of the divine, a revelation, an “epiphany”. In a new translation of the Missal, our bishops will have the chance to give us a precious gift: a new glimpse of God through beauty and truth in words. When we go to Mass we are like shoe-less Moses’ meeting God in the burning bush which is not consumed. We are like the Magi whose penetrating sight is fixed upon the infant Jesus, in whose perfect image something of the invisible Father is revealed.

SUPER OBLATA (2002MR) “in die”
Ecclesiae tuae, quaesumus, Domine, dona propitius intuere,
quibus non iam aurum, thus et myrrha profertur,
sed quod eisdem muneribus declaratur, immolatur et sumitur,
Iesus Christus.

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 create an effective climax at the end when we hear the Holy Name.

Notice the two different Latin words for “gift”: donum and munus.  The fine Lewis & Short Dictionary says 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 also “consume”.  Intueor is a deponent verb, meaning “to look upon” as well as “to give attention to.”  Given the humble tone of this prayer and the priest’s gestures of offering gifts upward to God, I choose to render intueor here as “gaze down upon.”   Declaro is “to make clear, plain, evident (by disclosing, uncovering), to show, manifest, declare.”  I think “reveal” is appropriate.

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,
Jesus Christ.

In this prayer today we find the deepest meaning of the gifts we offer at the Lord’s altar.  The tokens brought by the Magi, representing the hopes of the nations of the earth, were “types”, foreshadowing the one who was to offer Himself on the Cross.  What we offer at Mass is far more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Nevertheless, those symbols give us an orientation when we see the priest, alter Christus, raising our offerings to God in preparation for their consecration and transubstantiation.  Fathers of the Church and medieval divines such as Jacobus de Voragine (+1298) wrote creatively and extensively on these symbols.  Gold, symbolizes the kingship of God, to be mirrored in the purity our hearts which are so precious to Christ and which He as King desires for His throne.  Frankincense symbolizes Christ’s divinity.  Only God should receive sacrifices of the sweet-smelling and precious burnt offering which reminds us of the utter immolation He submitted Himself to on our behalf.  The total destruction of incense produces smoke, which rises like our prayers upward to God.  Myrrh, the balm used to prepare the bodies of the dead, suggests Christ’s perfect humanity, through which He endured agony and the tomb.  The offertory of Mass, with its Super Oblata, helps the attentive Christian to dispose himself for the sacred action to follow.  The offerings on the altar will become Christ Jesus.  But they are also stand for us ourselves.

LATIN (2002 Missale Romanum):
Caelesti lumine, quaesumus, Domine,
semper et ubique nos praeveni,
ut mysterium, cuius nos participes esse voluisti,
et puro cernamus intuitu, et digno percipiamus affectu.

This prayer was once the Postcommunio of the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord observed on 13 January according to the 1962MR unless it happened that the day coincided with the first Sunday after Epiphany, in which case the feast of the Holy Family was celebrated.

ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
guide us with your light.
Help us to recognize Christ in this eucharist
and welcome him with love.

As much as I hate to pick on the lame duck ICEL versions, this is less than good. I think we can do better without even trying to make a smooth and elegant version suitable for Mass.

And as always when we do this, we want to know just what those words really mean. You know where to find the meanings too. Our vocabulary is fairly straight forward. We could review intuitus, related to the verb intueor, meaning, “a look, view” and thus also, “respect, consideration”. In his Eucharistic poem Adoro te devote St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: Plagas, sicut Thomas, non intueor, Deum tamen meum te confiteor:… ”I do not view your wounds as Thomas did, nevertheless I profess You to be my God”. More about intuitus below. Affectus, which we have seen before, is from the complicated verb aff– or adficio and means many things. It is apparently not used as a substantive. In order to understand what is happening with this word, we need to look at another derivative of afficio: the noun affectio. Briefly, affectio is “The relation to or disposition toward a thing produced in a person by some influence” and “A change in the state or condition of body or mind, a state or frame of mind, feeling (only transient, while habitus is lasting).”

O Lord, we beg you,
go before us always and everywhere with heavenly illumination,
so that we may discern with a pure regard the sacramental mystery,
of which you desired us to be participants,
and perceive it with a worthy disposition.

At first glance, you will see immediately a reference to the miraculous star that led the Magi to the Christ Child: “go before us with a celestial light (lumen).” There are also verbs of perceiving and discerning in our prayer (cerno…percipio). We have the image of some in a journey through a dark place who needs both light and also sharpened senses so that he can make the best use of that light lest he lose his way and himself in the losing. Think of the way that Dante is led from the chaos of his life to the light of reason through the allegorical figures sent to guide his way out of the symbolic “dark wood.” Think of the way, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, light is always a sign of grace aiding those in dire need, such as when the light of a special star captured in a vial illuminates a dark path for Frodo and Sam as they are trying to carry their horrible burden, the Ring, into Mordor as an act of pure self-sacrifice. We pray for light from above, “heavenly” light. Our prayer today offers a metaphor for our interior journey to Christ. We need graces and lights from above in order to find our way or, as the case may be, find our way back out of the darkness into which we may have fallen. We must therefore consider further the verb praevenio. This signifies, “to come before, precede, get the start of, to outstrip, anticipate, to prevent; to come or go beforehand (late Lat.).”

The word praevenio will remind us right away of the theological distinction made when speaking of actual graces. You recall that God gives us habitual grace, also called sanctifying grace. This is in us as a habit is in us, in a stable and abiding manner. Actual graces are given to us according to our needs here and now, in this or that circumstance. Theologians identify in this category of actual graces something called gratia praeveniens, or “prevenient grace” and sometimes even “preventing grace” (defined by the Council of Trent, cf. Session VI, ch. 5 – we will leave aside for the sake of brevity the erroneous use of this term in some Reformation theologians). God made us with a free will, though that will is now wounded from the effects of original sin. When we are in need, especially when we have fallen into habitual sins and our will has little strength to extricate ourselves from our dark path, God gives the actual grace that, in a sense, “goes before” other graces, such as the actual graces we can receive, such as the sacramental graces from a good confession and absolution. He helps us to repent and be strong to confess before we take action. He does not constrain or bypass our will, but strengthens and cooperates with it through a freely given gift. We find examples of preventing or prevenient graces in the pages of Scripture as, for example, with a reluctant person hears the voice of God (e.g. Jeremiah or the person described in John 6:44). The patristic formula that describes this is Gratia est in nobis, sed sine nobis, that is, grace (as a vital act) is in our soul, but it does not comes from the soul; it is salutary and comes immediately from God (cf. St. Augustine De grat. et lib. arbitr., 17, 33).

When we consider the prayer from this light, we see also a new possibility in intuitus, which is more than just a physical sighting of a thing coming to view. The same Augustine says, “’The mind, when directed towards intelligible things in the natural order, according to the disposition of the creator, sees them in a certain incorporeal light which is sui generis, just as the physical eye sees nearby objects in corporeal light” (cf. De Trinitate 12,15,24). This has to do with spiritual sight in an analogy with physical sight. Grace, then, illumines the soul in such a way that we can discern and perceive clearly spiritual realities, hidden from the sight of the body’s eyes. At the time of Holy Communion it is good to bring to mind what we should have learned in catechism: sacraments are outward signs sensible to the body’s senses that confer invisible grace, perceived only with the eyes of the soul illuminated by grace, both habitual and actual. Think of the moment in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus sees the wealthy young man who has kept the commandments. In the Vulgate we read: “Iesus autem intuitus eum dilexit eum…Jesus looked at/perceived him and loved Him.” Jesus was doing more than just look at the fellows face. We can read much in the face of someone else. We can often perceive falsehood or trustworthiness. In this moment, Christ saw through to the depths of this young man’s soul. He saw with a different sight the spiritual reality and state of the man before Him. God sees us always in this way. We asked Him in this prayer to grant us a sharing in His life (grace) so that we can look back at Him in the moment of Communion and see Him with spiritual eyes. This is an anticipation of how we hope to see Him face to face in the life to come.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Jacob says:

    Getting moved to a Sunday is okay I guess, but it always seems so arbitrary how Christmas either gets lengthened or hacked off depending on the calendar. In the US, is there /ever/ a Second Sunday of Christmas?

  2. Father, you are an absolute treasure.

  3. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    “When we consider the prayer from this light…”

    on the Epiphany…

    Brilliant, Fr Z.

  4. Diane K says:

    Father: All I can say is thank you for this beautiful post. I have so little time before I head off to an early Mass today and I’m so glad I used it to stop here.

    Please consider compiling all of these WDTPRS articles in a book. I would buy it. This, among others, is one I would like to digest again and again.

  5. DAN says:

    Dear Fr. Z,

    Please could you tell me which canto from the Paradiso you are referring to? (transhumanize)

    Many Thanks

  6. London Calling says:

    Brilliant, Father, and so helpful to have read these insightful explanations before this morning’s (ordinary form, Latin) Mass. Thank you!

  7. Henry Edwards says:

    What a most beautiful gift you, a truly wise man and priest, have most appropriately brought us for \”this most holy day\” (Communicantes)! This opus magnum among your festal and Sunday WDTPRS offerings reminds what a valuable contribution your WDTPRS book will be, especially when the forthcoming new translation for liturgical use brings a greatly increased interest in knowing what the proper prayers of Holy Mass really say.

    How wonderful it will be to prepare for Holy Mass each Sunday by comparing the Latin originals, their liturgical English translations and your \”slavishly\” literal translations to bore into multiple levels of meaning. For those who participate actively in this way, the propers of the Mass will — from their current low estate in the vernacular liturgy — finally be revealed as the polished gems they really are.

  8. DAN: “trasumanar” is in Par 1.

  9. Pleased as Punch says:

    A magnificent reflection and analysis, Father Zuhlsdorf! I second all calls for assembling your WDTPRS essays/columns in book format. I have little doubt that it would be a very effective tool for authentic liturgical renewal.

  10. Dear Fr. Z,

    As you celebrate today the Epiphany of Christ to the Magi, we Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate the same event but as part of the Nativity, theophany being the Manifestation of Christ at His Baptism. Diversity of custom but in a nited Liturgical has been the witness of the Church for all these many generations. On lady who posted earlier suggested that you compile your explanations into a book. I roundly second her suggestion. It would in deed be a great legacy to the authentic liurgical renewal. Greetings on thsi Great Feast of the Lord. Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

  11. Rob F. says:

    I have a hypotheses about the distinction between “hodie” and “hodierna die”, but I have not been able to prove (or refute) it. Let me propose it for your more learned consideration. “Hodie” means “today”, while “hodierna die” means “on today’s date”. The adjective “hodierna” softens the “die” and makes it more indirect than the very blunt “hodie = hoc die”, i.e. this very day. After all the magi did not appear at the creche “today”, 6 Jan 2007, but on this date some 2000 years earlier.

    Just a thought.

  12. WFW says:

    The 1962 collect reads: “Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum gentibus stella duce revelasti” etc. Is there some reason why the word “gentibus” was removed in the latin but kept in the ICEL translation (i.e. to the nations)?
    The use of the word “duce” is interesting from a historical perspective especially because besides simply being a guide or leader the “dux” of a Roman provice at least in the first century AD was the chief military officer of a province.

  13. Andrew says:

    Rob F.

    I have a hypotheses about the distinction between “hodie” and “hodierna die”, but I have not been able to prove (or refute) it.

    I think your observation is right on the dot. It’s been observed by linguists that there is a law of “expansion and abbreviation” in each language over a longer period of time. First, repeated longer expressions get shortened such as the French aujourd’hui meaning today but being an abbreviation of “on this day”. In this case “hoc die” was abbreviated into “hodie” from which was derived “hodiernus” meaning “of this day”. The shortened versions are later elaborated back to what they used to be and expanded because the original abreviation is no longer recognized: in this case “hodie” into “hodierna die” which is somewhat like saying “the day of this day”. I might be wrong but somehow I doubt Cicero (or Jerome) would have said “hodierna die”.

  14. Rob F. says:


    I don’t know about Jerome, but Cicero comes close to using “hodierna die”. Specifically he uses “hodierno die” in Cat.3:21. His use there would seem to be fatal to my theory, but his use of the masculine form rather than the feminine leaves me with a little bit of wiggle room.

  15. Andrew says:

    Rob F.

    I was badly mistaken in my comment above. I looked it up and “hodiernus dies” means something like “the present time” and it is used extensively by Cicero and Jerome and Seneca and others. There’s even “hodierno mane” (this morning” or “hodierno die mane” and similar expressions.

    Mea culpa.

  16. leo says:

    what is the catholic response to the contrasting accounts in matthew and luke? How could our lord be presented in the temple in jerusalem if his family had fledinto egypt untilthe death of herod i know i should have an answer but my students are keen to have some resolution other than all wil be revealed on the last day

  17. Jordan Potter says:

    Leo asked: How could our lord be presented in the temple in jerusalem if his family had fled into egypt untilthe death of herod

    The Scriptures do not tell us when the Holy Family fled into Egypt, nor when the Magi came to Jerusalem or visited Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem. It is telling, however, that Herod didn’t order the slaughter only of infants, but of any boy age 2 and under; also, the Greek word in Matt. 2 for “child” is brephos, which, as I understand it, indicates a child who is about toddler age more than it does a newborn baby. So the text of St. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that the events in Matt. 2 happened some time after the events recounted in Luke 2.

    The early Fathers commented on this question also, and you may read their thoughts in the Catena Aurea, here:


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