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.
COLLECT – LATIN TEXT (2002MR):
Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum stella duce revelasti,
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,
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.