WDTPRS – Epiphany – a “thunderclap”

“Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for a divine “manifestation” or “revelation”.  The antiphons for Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours reflect the ancient tradition that Epiphany was thought to be the day not only on which the Magi came to adore the Christ Child, but also the very day Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, and also the day 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 encountered God in the burning bush (Exodus 3).

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, Epiphany later.  In many countries people exchange presents on Epiphany, in imitation of the Magi bringing their gifts.  Epiphany 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 that 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 key celebrations of Christmas and Easter for a reason.  When we transfer these feasts to Sunday, we diminish the meaning of the entire liturgical year. As our obligations as Catholics are made 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 sacrifice.  

When you move Twelfth Night to Seventh Night we get short-changed.

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 + 11”, 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”. Clever. 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 prayer, in the 8th century Gregorian Sacramentary, survived the scissors of the Annibale Bugnini’s post-Conciliar reform as the Collect in the Novus Ordo.  Your revelatory Lewis & Short Dictionary manifests celsitudo as, in older Latin, a “loftiness of carriage”. In later Latin it points to “majesty”, as in the title “Highness”.  The ending of revelasti is “syncopated” (abbreviated) from 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 days” 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.

O God,
who on this day revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy
that we who know you now by faith
may be brought to behold
the beauty of your sublime glory

O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy
that we who know you already by faith
may be brought to behold
the beauty of your sublime glory

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. We will have direct knowledge.  In the phrase usque ad contemplandam speciem (a gerundive construction indicating purpose) we pray to be brought “all the way to the beauty” of God “which is to be contemplated”.  Our encounter with 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 will divinize us, conform us more and more to His image.  In our Collect, note the 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 Catholic faith, our splendid liturgy both show forth God’s truth and beauty.  Proper worship requires the most accurate, the most beautiful words, actions, and music we can summon from human genius.  What we do and say in church should be a foretaste of heaven and the Beatific Vision.  Think simply of the effect music has on people.  A couple years ago in National Review Michael Knox Beran wrote 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(“Mysterious Encounters – Benedict XVI resurrects the aesthetics of the Mass”, 24 Dec. 2007). Holy Church is reclaiming her great liturgical treasury, especially since Pope Benedict gave us Summorum Pontificum.  The new translation of the Novus Ordo Missale Romanum will help.

Participation at Holy Mass should be truly full, conscious and active.  We actively engage all we see and hear so as to receive what God offers through our Holy Church’s sacred mysteries.  We will have our own “epiphanies” during Mass. We will have moments of revelation 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.  Is this not enough of a motive to participate actively, with interiorly active receptivity, in this encounter with mystery?  Seek cleansing of your 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 grasp that you must one day die and face judgment, you will understand why Holy Mass must be nothing other than an encounter with mystery, and not a distracting celebration of ourselves.

When you go to Mass, go like Moses.  He removed his sandals before the burning bush.  He peered through the cleft in the rock as God passed.  Be like Paul peering through the shadowy glass. Imitate the Magi, whose penetrating sight fixed on nothing other than the coming of the mysterious King, in whose perfect image something of the invisible Father is revealed.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. torch621 says:

    Wait a minute, my little St. Joseph’s guide for the LOTH says Epiphany was last week, on Jan. 2. Did I miss something?

  2. thickmick says:

    Awesome Father Z.!

  3. Magpie says:

    Great post Father.

    When do we think would be the best time to give a local priest a special New Missal Translation mug? I am debating on whether to give one early in the year or nearer Advent 2011. I want to send a subtle hint and introduce the priests to the blog. What do folks think?

    It’s already well us in the choir reading the blog, but our local priests really need to be reading this.

  4. Keith.R says:

    I’ve seen Twelfth Night shown as the evening of 5 Jan (starting with 25 Dec and counting to 12, making Twelfth Night the eve of the Epiphany), and I’ve seen it as the evening of 4 Jan (following the tradition that nights precede days, so Twelfth Night is the Twelfth Night starting Christmas Eve and counting to 12, and Twelfth Night precedes Twelfth Day). Either way, 5 Jan is Twelfth Day, and Epiphany is not the “Twelfth Day of Christmas”. Epiphany isn’t the last day of Christmas, it is the first day of what was once called Opentyde/Opetide/Opentide).

    Torch – your guide to the LOTH may have been written by the same folk who think Ascension Thursday can fall on a Sunday.

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thank you Father for this beautiful meditation.

    . . . time to get out the blessed chalk!

  6. Tom in NY says:

    Ad jucundum: Etiam festam contemplemus.
    Ut semper, gratias sapientiae RP Moderatoris agamus.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you, so much, for reminding me to put the blessed chalk blessing on the door. As I live alone now, I almost forgot. I have the chalk right here. As I am so short, I shall have to get a chair.

  8. introibo says:

    My parents grew up in PA’s Polish coal territory..my father was an altar boy and went around to the houses with the priest doing the blessings (he made a bit of money this way!). Since it was Polish country, the inscription was “K+M+B” (K for Kaspar, as any Eastern European would spell it). So he used to joke that it meant “Keep more boarders (i.e. tenants)”

  9. Henry Edwards says:

    Torch – your guide to the LOTH may have been written by the same folk who think Ascension Thursday can fall on a Sunday.

    Or those USCCB apparatchiks who allegedly once proposed that—for the pastoral benefit of the faithful, of course—the celebration of Holy Thursday be transferred to the following Sunday. And have long since succeeded in transferring the observance of Epiphany and the Ascension to adjacent Sundays. But we all know that—whenever it’s celebrated (Jan. 2 this year)—the Epiphany is still the twelfth day after Christmas, that is, January 6.

  10. Joseph-Mary says:

    Yes, I used blessed chalk and marked my doorways and then took Epiphany Holy Water (with the special blessing) and blessed every room in my house and then around my house.

    I never heard of this until a few years ago.

  11. AnnAsher says:

    When’s Candlemas?

  12. Supertradmum says:


    Candlemas is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, or Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Latin Rite. It is celebrated on February 2nd. In some dioceses, dedicated to Mary, there are octaves of Candlemas. In the very old days, the Christmas season extended to that date and then some went into the long fast-monasteries mostly, but not exclusively. The blessing of the candles, as I understand, was a later addition, a la 11th century.

  13. Joe in Canada says:

    I love the Byzantine tropar (?) for the Nativity-Epiphany: Your birth, O Christ our God, made dawn the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Your birth those who worshipped stars, were taught by a star, to worship You, the Sun of Justice and to know You, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!

  14. Frank H says:


    I gave new translation mugs to both our parish priests for Christmas. They love them! The pastor brought his to the RCIA class this week, and even used the phrase “Do the Red” when responding to a question!

  15. JMody says:

    Fr. Z., this hits the nail on the head:

    As our obligations as Catholics are made 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 sacrifice.

    I would love to etch that into a big piece of metal and donate it to my bishop, or maybe have it embossed on all my checks to the parish and the diocese. To Epiphany and Ascension, I would add the Friday abstinence, and the pre-Mass fast, and so much more.

    Two things in the Church today are truly shocking to me (ok, many more, but two that are relevant right now):
    FIRST is that SO MUCH needs to be changed. How on Earth did people get by between the death of St. John and the end of Vatican II? Pope John Paul II had to change EVEN THE ROSARY? And it’s never the slow organic change that Card. Newman compared to healthy growth but rather the drastic change he compared to cancer and corruption. UNLESS you want to fix bad hippy Latin paraphrases and make them more like professional translations …
    And SECOND, the change is always always always AWAY FROM what would be identifiably Catholic. If it were truly random, some changes would be toward a more Catholic state, a la blind sows and acorns, but when precisely NONE are, it has to be a plan. Who is leading the planning, or the implementation? Somewhere is a human coordinator of this activity, and he (she?) must be found and stopped.

    Are there any steps the faithful can take, or do we merely pray and endure? Are we not soon entering the ‘biological solution’ era where God is punishing the children for the sins, or at least bad ideas, of the parents? Remember, souls of those in charge will be held to account for the poorly formed, right? Or, like my old Carmelite theology teacher used to say, is the Red Sea going to part only after the last Israelite nose is wet?

  16. stpetric says:

    The translation of the Epiphany collect from the Book of Common Prayer:

    O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know thee now by faith, to thy presence, where we may behold thy glory face to face; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

  17. Jordanes says:

    On the traditional names of the three Magi, the name of the first, Gaspar, represents a historical king who reigned in the area that is today Afghanistan and Pakistan during the middle of the first century A.D. His name as it is on his coins was Gudafara (which was Grecianised as Gondapharnes), and according to tradition St. Thomas preached the Gospel to him. Gudafara eventually became something like Guthafar or Gathfar, whence Gaspar or Casper.

    Of course chronologically it is unlikely that the Gudafara of St. Thomas could have been one of the Magi about 45 years earlier.

  18. One of the worst aspects about the transfer of Epiphany is that the Sunday readings for that Sunday get replaced – and, if I remember correctly, that is the Sunday in which the prologue of from the Gospel of St. John is read. So there is a two-fold tragedy. One, the historic and traditional date of Epiphany is lost (and therefore, its importance in the mind of the people) AND the people of God do not actually get to hear one of the most significant Gospel readings in a liturgical setting – ever!

  19. Joe Magarac says:

    I think Fr. Z’s “slavishly literal” version forgot to translate “gentibus.” The “slavishly literal” version says that God “revealed your Only-begotten.” Both of the ICEL versions say that God “revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations.”

    That said, both of the ICEL versions insert the word “Son” where it does not appear in the Latin. Translation is an art and not a science.

  20. Supertradmum says:


    Thanks for your very interesting information.

    If the king was 35 or 40, he very well could have been alive. We have mistaken idea of how long people lived by incorrect data. Those 66% who made it past age five, past the years of severe illnesses and weakness, lived to be very old. There are many countries which share that story. Also, in the catacombs, are at least 20 depictions of the Three Kings, one as old as the Third Century.

  21. nanetteclaret says:

    Isn’t it amazing how the Bishops can be such sticklers for “unity” when it comes to standing vs. kneeling for Holy Communion, but are then not bothered that the Church in the U.S. is not “unified” with the rest of the world – and the Holy Father – in celebrating Epiphany on January 6th and Ascension Thursday on Thursday. Very selective application of “unity.”

  22. jaykay says:

    “That said, both of the ICEL versions insert the word “Son” where it does not appear in the Latin. Translation is an art and not a science.”

    Agreed, but of course “filium” doesn’t actually need to appear in the Latin. This is not the case with modern English, really. One could of course use “your Onlybegotten” and it would be perfectly understood (and even quite poetic) but… it’s not really done that way now. And the new translations have sought to avoid “archaic” usages.

  23. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    I miss my days of living in Germany when on the 6th, local boys from the Catholic parish would come around caroling and the “katholischer Priester” would be invited by my Lutheran land-lady to bless the house and mark the doorways (because I, her apartment renter and “American daughter” was Catholic).

    Instead, yesterday, suffering with a cold and fever, I finally place the kings and their attendants at the creche. I missed going with friends to attend TLM for the Feast of the Epiphany, as well as having friends over for a final “Christmas” dinner.

  24. cyejbv says:

    Thank you Father.

  25. Sacristymaiden says:

    This is a sort of aside, but does anyone have the recipes for King Cake and Lamb’s Wool? I would love to start that tradition.

  26. mike cliffson says:

    late on the thread, but for the record:
    European Spanish tradition reamains public holiday(how long?) and kids get presis from the magi, NO intermediaries. South of your border, summat seems to have nibbled that .In but a generation secular families in Spain get presis 25th from the most distant fromgood St Nickolas and gooey disneyfied unchristian and anticatholic papa noel you can imagine.

  27. thereseb says:

    for Lambs Wool. If you are in the US you may have difficulty getting English beer, but a German heritage beer made with hops may be a substitute. I don’t think Coors will hack it.

    http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1926/cake-of-kings. Sorry – all the measurements are in grams

    Converter here

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