Saturday, January 6, 2018

Happy Epiphany: The Magi, the Baptism, and the Wedding Feast

Today is the traditional day of Epiphany, although we will celebrate here it in the USA at Sunday Mass on January 7--just one day off! Epiphany is one of the most fascinating feasts of the Church's liturgical year, because it celebrates not just one but three events. There are three manifestations of Jesus: when the Magi present their gifts to the new born King of the Jews; when St. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan; when Jesus changes water into wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana. At Sunday Mass, the Gospel according to St. Matthew tells the story of the Magi from the east, but in the Liturgy of the Hours, the other epiphanies are celebrated are celebrated in the antiphon for the Magnificat of Vespers:

Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

In The Catholic Herald, Father David Elliott of The Oratory School in Woodcote, Oxfordshire writes about how much his students enjoy the preparations for this feast:

One liturgy where customs seem to fall over themselves is the Mass for the Epiphany. There is a superabundance of ritual to take advantage of: the proclamation of the date of Easter, the opportunity to offer incense, the blessing of chalk so the faithful may mark their houses each year, and the blessing of Magi water so the faithful may bless their homes. These sacramentals speak to every Catholic and, where practised, people respond very positively. They are gifts from the Church which cost nothing in terms of money but are rich with the message of a Church which wants to permeate the life and homes of every Catholic person so that their home life may not be discrete from their life at Church.

What I want to see in this country is a Catholic Church where people’s homes are alive with the same faith they espouse at church. This has to be taught in our schools first and foremost and the key is to immerse our young people in ritual, the understanding of which has not always been taught to their parents and grandparents. In 1970, the anthropologist Mary Douglas lamented in her book
Natural Symbols what she perceived to be a loss of ritualism in contemporary culture. She cited as a case in point the English and Welsh bishops’ decision to do away with abstinence on Fridays (something which was reinstated in 2011). In the eyes of many of the faithful this was an instance of the hierarchy (priests and bishops) taking away from the people their right to belong. In contrast to the people, the priests saw ritual actions as separating Catholics from the rest of the population and wanted instead to integrate Catholics more fully into mainstream society; the result was to alienate a people from the religion they loved.

Blessed John Henry Newman founded in The Oratory School in 1859. In this Parochial and Plain Sermon, he describes the season of Epiphany, which has been shortened in the modern Roman Calendar to a week at most, between Epiphany and the Baptism, but this year by a day (since Monday is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, right after the Solemnity of the Epiphany.) Newman notes that this is a time set apart

for adoring the glory of Christ. The word may be taken to mean the manifestation of His glory, and leads us to the contemplation of Him as a King upon His throne in the midst of His court, with His servants around Him, and His guards in attendance. At Christmas we commemorate His grace; and in Lent His temptation; and on Good Friday His sufferings and death; and on Easter Day His victory; and on Holy Thursday His return to the Father; and in Advent we anticipate His second coming. And in all of these seasons He does something, or suffers something: but in the Epiphany and the weeks after it, we celebrate Him, not as on His field of battle, or in His solitary retreat, but as an august and glorious King; we view Him as the Object of our worship. Then only, during His whole earthly history, did He fulfil the type of Solomon, and held (as I may say) a court, and received the homage of His subjects; viz. when He was an infant. His throne was His undefiled Mother's arms; His chamber of state was a cottage or a cave; the worshippers were the wise men of the East, and they brought presents, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All around and about Him seemed of earth, except to the eye of faith; one note alone had He of Divinity. As great men of this world are often plainly dressed, and look like other men, all but as having some one costly ornament on their breast or on their brow; so the Son of Mary in His lowly dwelling, and in an infant's form, was declared to be the Son of God Most High, the Father of Ages, and the Prince of Peace, by His star; a wonderful appearance which had guided the wise men all the way from the East, even unto Bethlehem.

This being the character of this Sacred Season, our services throughout it, as far as they are proper to it, are full of the image of a king in his royal court, of a sovereign surrounded by subjects, of a glorious prince upon a throne. There is no thought of war, or of strife, or of suffering, or of triumph, or of vengeance connected with the Epiphany, but of august majesty, of power, of prosperity, of splendour, of serenity, of benignity. Now, if at any time, it is fit to say, "The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him." [Hab. ii. 20.] {76} "The Lord sitteth above the waterflood, and the Lord remaineth a king for ever." "The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge." "O come, let us worship, and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker." "O magnify the Lord our God, and fall down before His footstool, for He is Holy." "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; bring presents, and come into His courts."

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