WDTPRS – Epiphany – Roman Station: San Pietro in Vaticano (2002MR)

The Roman Station for Epiphany is San Pietro in Vaticano.  The only problem is that Epiphany in the Vatican is celebrated on 6 January, when it ought to be.  In the rest of the world, sadly, Epiphany is moved around, thus obliterating it’s fixed character in relation to Christmas Day.

“Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for a divine “manifestation” or “revelation”.  The antiphons for Vespers reflect the tradition that Epiphany was thought to be the day not only on which the Magi came to adore Christ, but also the day Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, and when He was baptized in the Jordan by St. John.  All three events reveal Jesus as more than a mere man: He is God.   There are many “epiphanies” or “theophanies” in Scripture, such as when Moses saw God in the burning bush. 

The celebration of Epiphany stretches back to the Church’s earliest times.   In the Greek East, Epiphany was of far greater importance than Christmas, which was a relative latecomer.  In the Latin West, Christmas developed first, and Epiphany later. 

In many countries people exchange gifts on Epiphany, in imitation of the Magi with their gifts.  Epiphany truly falls on 6 January, the twelfth day after Christmas, as in “On the Twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”, and also the title of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.  In the reformed, post-Conciliar calendar Epiphany is usually transferred to a Sunday, so that more people can attend the Mass. 

I think it is a mistake to transfer important feasts like Epiphany, in Christmastide, and Ascension Thursday in Eastertide.  These feasts are pegged to the great celebrations of Christmas and Easter for a reason.  When we transfer these feasts to Sunday, we diminish the meaning of the liturgical year. By making our obligations as Catholics ever more lax and easier to fulfill, a subtle signal is sent that none of our obligations, practices or teachings are important enough to warrant a place and, at times, sacrifice in our daily lives.  

Exquisite customs grace Epiphany.  The most famous is the blessing of chalk used to hallow homes. On the lintels of the doors the priest writes with the chalk “20 + C + M + B + 09”, i.e., the year and initials of the names of the Magi indicated in Rituale Romanum: Gaspar (G and C being related), Melchior et Baltássar. 

The names of the Magi are traditional, not scriptural and some ancient authors thought there were as many as 24.  

Some say “C + M + B” stands for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat… May Christ bless this dwelling”. Though clever, that’s probably wrong.

Water is blessed at Epiphany because of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan.  People give presents and enjoy King Cake and Lamb’s Wool (a drink made from cider or ale with roasted apples, sugar and spices).  Apple trees were blessed by pouring cider on them! 

In Italy children wait for “la Befana” (from Italian “Epifania”). La Befana is old woman who was invited by the Magi to accompany them on their journey to find the newborn King. She declined because she was busy sweeping her house. Later, she realized her error followed the Magi but never caught up.  Thus, la Befana is still searching for Jesus, zooming around Harry Potter-like on her broomstick.  Santa-like, however, she visits homes and leaves toys and candy for good children, and the nasty lumps of coal for the naughty. 

In today’s technological society, instead of coal she and jolly old St. Nick would do better to leave an obsolete cellular phone or maybe a first generation X-Box.

Santa gets cookies and milk by fireplaces to sustain him on his way, but Italians appropriately leave wine and oranges for la Befana.

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

This ancient prayer, already in the 8th century Gregorian Sacramentary, survived the cutting table of the post-Conciliar reform: it is still the Collect in the Novus Ordo.  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”.  In case you are trying to figure out the ending of revelasti it is a syncopated (shortened) form of revelavistiStella duce is an ablative absolute (duce is from dux).   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”.


O God, who this very day 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.

In this life we know God only indirectly, by faith.  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.  St. Hilary of Poitiers (+367) spoke of the gloria 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. 

Our true Catholic faith and our splendid liturgy show forth the truth and beauty of God.  We must find the most accurate and beautiful words, actions, music we can possibly summon from human genius, labor and love for Holy Mass.  What we say and do in church ought to be a foretaste of heaven and the Beatific Vision.  Think simply of the effect music has on people.  Last year National Review stated that, “if good music does not always save the soul, bad music never does. When the electric guitar sounds during the Sacrifice of the Mass, the cherubim weep.

The Church is reclaiming her great liturgical treasury, especially since Pope Benedict gave us Summorum Pontificum.  Even the new translation of the Novus Ordo Missale Romanum should work wonders.

SECRET (1962MR):
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, also in the ancient Gregorian Sacramentary, happily survived as the Super Oblata for Epiphany in the Novus Ordo.  Notice all the passive forms (-tur).  They provide an excellent internal cohesion and create a powerful climax at the end when the Holy Name suddenly comes to our ears… like a little epiphany

Note the two different words for “gift”: donum and munus.  The L&S says that in classical Latin literature donum is associated 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”.  Declaro is “to make clear, plain, evident (by disclosing, uncovering), to show, manifest, declare.”

Graciously gaze down, we beseech You, O Lord, upon the gifts of Your Church,
in which gold, frankincense, and myrrh are no longer laid before You,
but rather that which is revealed, sacrificed and received by means of those same gifts,
Jesus Christ.

The tokens brought by the Magi, representing the hopes of the nations of the earth, were “types”, foreshadows of the Lord who would offer Himself on the Cross.  Fathers of the Church and medieval writers such as Jacobus de Voragine (+1298) wrote with creativity and insight about 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 because only God should receive sacrifices.  The burning of something so precious reminds us of the utter immolation to which Christ submitted Himself on our behalf.  The total destruction of incense produces smoke, which rises like our prayers upward to God.  During a Traditional High Mass the priest incenses the altar while saying quietly, “May this incense, which Thou hast blessed, O Lord, ascend to Thee, and may Thy mercy descend upon us. Let my prayer, O Lord, be directed as incense in Thy sight: the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a door round about my lips. May my heart not incline to evil words, to make excuses for sins.  May the Lord enkindle within us the fire of His love, and the flame of everlasting charity. Amen.”   This prayer was done away with in the Novus Ordo, as were many references to sin.  Myrrh, the balm used to prepare the bodies of the dead, underscores Christ’s humanity, through which He endured suffering and then resurrection.  The Offertory prayers help the attentive Christian dispose himself for an encounter with mystery. 

Praesta, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus:
ut quae solemni celebramus officio,
purificatae mentis intellegentia consequamur

This ancient prayer did not make the cut in the Novus Ordo.  Intellegentia is obviously the “power of discerning or understanding”, but ancient authors such as St. Jerome (+420) and John Cassian (+435) also use it for the ability to see the deeper, symbolic meaning of Scripture, allegorical meanings. 

Grant, we beseech You, Almighty God,
that we may attain with the understanding of a purified mind,
the things we are celebrating with solemn observance.

Our participation at Holy Mass should be truly full, conscious and active.  We actively engage all we see and hear so as to receive with an eager embrace everything God offers through our Holy Church’s sacred mysteries.  We will have our own “epiphanies” during Mass, moments of “revelation”, often about ourselves and the state of our soul, or what we ought to do in life.  Remember that the Word, who is God eternal, became flesh also in order to reveal us more fully to ourselves (cf. Gaudium et spes 22).  In the life to come, only the pure may see God.  This should give us ample motive to participate actively, with interiorly active receptivity, to the graces and insights which come from our encounter with mystery.  This should give us more than enough motive to be purified of our sins through confession and sacramental absolution.  The reality of our unavoidable judgment must at some point dawn upon us like a thunderclap.  When you finally understand that you must one day die and face judgment, you begin to understand why Holy Mass must be nothing other than an encounter with mystery.

When we go to Mass we should be like Moses’, putting off his shoes before God in the burning bush which was mysteriously not consumed. We must be like Magi, whose penetrating sight was fixed on no one but the infant Jesus, in whose perfect image something of the invisible Father is mysteriously revealed.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. paul says:

    I agree transferring these great feast days to Sunday is a mistake. Why not just drop them as holy days of obligation but keep them on the correct days?

  2. Paul: Or we could a) keep them on the correct days and b) keep the obligation too.

  3. Aelric says:

    We shall do the inscribing of the lintel this year for the first time.

    One small little home custom regarding Epiphany we have is: after setting up the tree usually a week before Christmas and putting out the creche, we place the figures of the magi (and their camel) somewhere else in the house. As the days progress, the magi get moved closer and closer to the creche until they “arrive” on Epiphany. After a day or two of adoration, they “leave” and the tree comes down.

  4. Robert says:

    Fr Z: What is the protocol for getting chalk blessed by our priest? Just ask him?

  5. Robert: Just ask. The blessing should be done on Epiphany and I recommend the older Rituale Romanum.

  6. Margo says:

    I agree: Epiphany should never occur before Twelfth Night.

    However, we get to eat “Gift of the Magi” sweet bread tomorrow, in honor of Epiphany. Our neighborhood (well, a few Catholic families on our block who’ve known each other years and years)has a splendid custom, too : early in the morning, one family has the rest of us over for crepes early in the morning — January 6, every year, even when it falls on a weekday.

  7. Julianna says:

    It seems a great mistake and a divide in continuity that the feast of the Epiphany is not kept according to the ancient tradition of the liturgy. See the early Christian document the Constitution of the Holy Apostles (said in the Edinburgh edition to be composed by Clement, Bishop of Rome): 1)Book V, Section III, On Fast Days and Feasts, XIII “Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month; after which let the Epiphany be to you the most honored, in which the Lord made to you a display of His own Godhead, and let it take place on the sixth of the tenth month; after which the fast of Lent is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s mode of life and legislation…” 2) Book VIII Upon which Days Servants are not Supposed to Work: “Let them rest on the festival of Epiphany, because on it a manifestation took place of the divinity of Christ, for the Father bore testimony to Him at the baptism; and the Paraclete, in the form of a dove, pointed out to the bystanders Him to whom testimony was borne.”
    Another matter, it seems that this feast had been associated with a fast, not only here but I found another document in the Appendix of the Church Councils (comprising the first seven Ecumenical Councils(Appendix Document written by the Archbishop of Alexandria, The Prosponius of Theophilus, dated in 365 ad.): Canon I.
    Because the fast of Epiphany chances to fall on a Lord’s day, let us take a few dates, and so break our fast, and honour the Lord’s day, and shew our dislike of heresy, and yet not wholly neglect the fast which should be observed on this day; eating no more till our evening assembly at three afternoon.

  8. Sieber says:

    My son’s godfather told stories of his childhood in Mexico, when on the Epiphany he was awakened by the household staff to come quickly or he would miss the three kings. He always did, but the servants would take him outside to see the tracks made by their camels. He would then be taken inside to see what gifts and treats they had left. This was at the turn of the last century.

    As for me I’m afraid La Befana left neither an old cell phone nor X box, e gads would you believe “Pong”!

  9. I do not know what about this is hard to understand. On the 1962 calendar, today is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Today is not the Epiphany.

    The Epiphany is January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas. It is not now and never has been transferred to any other day on the traditional calendar.

    However, it has always been possible for pastoral reasons to celebrate the Mass of a 1st class feast such as the Epiphany as an external solemnity on any other day which it outranks liturgically.

    Since the Holy Name of Jesus is a 2nd class, the beautiful Mass of the Epiphany can be celebrated today instead of the Mass of the Holy Name of Jesus.

    Where this is done, traditional Catholics will still observe the Epiphany on Tuesday, for instance, praying the Divine Office of the Epiphany then, even if they do not have a 1962 Mass to attend.

    Could it be any clearer?

  10. Gregory DiPippo says:

    Optime Z.
    Actually, in Italy, the Epiphany is not transferred to the Sunday. It will be celebrated on Tuesday in both rites.

  11. prof. basto says:

    Father Z: “In the rest of the world, sadly, Epiphany is moved around (…)”

    Well, thanks be to God, the above statement is wrong. Here in Brazil we move many feasts and solemnities, but not the Epiphany, Corpus Christi, and a few others.

  12. Fr. Z.,

    Please accept a note of appreciation for the time you invest in these weekly liturgical catecheses. I confess to skimming them most weeks, but I spent more time with this entry and used it in the Sunday catechesis I give my children. Thank you again.

  13. Sylvia says:

    New Year’s Resolution for the Holy Father: do something with the liturgical calendar! Please!

  14. Alessandro says:

    In Italy we have some solemnities moved from their proper day (Ascension, Corpus Christi) but about Epiphany the Goverment after an attempt (several years ago) to cancel the festive day of 6th january, had to change back the decision, restoring the holyday because of the powerful “attachment” of the people to “LA BEFANA”! The old lady, in the end, saved the Magi!

  15. paul says:

    Father, I agree we could keep them on the correct days and keep the obligation. From what I have read the reason these changes were made either was to make it easier for (a) the laity or (b) the clergy who are so few in number that to make it easier for them these feast days were moved to Sunday or dropped. I think it a real shame how weak Catholicism has become today. No more fasting from midnight, feast days suppressed, we have become too soft- the Christians in India are dying for their faith- killed by militant fundamentalist Hindus. Chrisitians in Vietnam and China are imprisoned for the faith.

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