Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Epiphany / Theophany of Our Lord

The Magi came from the East. How did they know about Christ? Probably from the prophecy of Daniel concerning the seventy weeks of the years; they counted the revolution of the stars. In any case, they knew, and they brought gold because he was a king, incense because he was a priest, but also myrrh. That’s the way he was buried, with a hundred pounds of spices and myrrh. What would our mothers have thought if the neighbors brought in embalming fluid when we were born?
--Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Epiphany is one of those solemnities that I am still getting used to. Growing up Protestant, we didn't have this holy day; now that I'm Catholic - and learned that there are 12 days of Christmas - I'm starting to appreciate what I have been learning about this day. There are many beautiful traditions from the East and West that occur in honor of this day. For instance, some Catholics might have chalk blessed and will write about the door frame of their home 20 + C + M + B + 14 and have their houses blessed. In Orthodox nations, many brave souls will plunge themselves into freezing cold water to retrieve a cross that's been tossed in by a priest.

The day is called the Theophany by our Eastern brethren and in their tradition, it focuses on the baptism of our Lord. In a homily of Hippolytus (died 235 AD), he used the word theophaneia for the day as he preached to people about to be baptized. Other observations started to "piggyback" on this day; OrthodoxWiki explains: Originally, there was just one Christian feast of the shining forth of God to the world in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. It included the celebration of Christ's birth, the adoration of the wise men, and all of the childhood events of Christ such as his circumcision and presentation to the temple as well as his baptism by John in the Jordan. There seems to be little doubt that this feast, like Pascha and Pentecost, was understood as the fulfillment of a previous Jewish festival, in this case the Feast of Lights. The Armenian Apostolic Church still keeps January 6 as a feast of both Christ's Nativity and baptism. Both East and West used this time of the year to baptize new Christians; however a movement began in the West (originating in Spain) where baptisms were reserved for only Christmas and Easter. As the West continued to embrace the Theophany, it moved further away from Christ's baptism and focused more on his manifestation to the Gentiles (the visit from the Magi); this was heartily influenced by Pope St. Leo the Great's homilies on Theophania, which concentrated mainly on the visit from the Magi. This complicated history of the holy day was encapsulated by the Daily Office (prior to the reforms of the SVC):

The antiphon to the Benedictus runs: "Today the Church is joined to her celestial spouse, because in Jordan Christ doth wash her sins; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal marriage-feast, and the guests exult in the water turned to wine." O Sola refers to the Magi only. The Magnificat antiphon of Second Vespers reads: "We keep our Holy Day adored with three miracles: today a star led the Magi to the crib, today wine was made from water at the marriage, today in Jordan Christ willed to be baptized by John to save us." (from the Catholic Encyclopedia) The 1928 Book of Common Prayer refers to January 6 as "The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles". Sadly, there is no longer an Octave for Epiphany, although the Ordinariate will continue to use Time After Epiphany to mark the weeks leading to Lent.

In the beautiful custom from the East, it is explained: The feast is called Theophany because at the baptism of Christ the Holy Trinity appeared clearly to mankind for the first time — the Father's voice is heard from Heaven, the Son of God is incarnate and standing physically in the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove. Benedict XVI wrote about the baptism of our Lord in his book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration. He writes:

The Eastern Church has further developed and deepened this understanding of Jesus' baptism in her liturgy and in her theology of icons. She sees a deep connection between the content of the feast of Epiphany...and Easter. She sees Jesus' remark to John that "it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:15) as the anticipation of his prayer to the Father in Gethsemane: "My Father...not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Mt 26:39). The liturgical hymns for January 3 correspond to those for Wednesday in Holy Week; the hymns for January 4 to those for Holy Thursday; the hymns for January 5 to those for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. These correspondences are picked up by the iconographic tradition. The icon of Jesus' baptism depicts the water as a liquid tomb having the form of a dark cavern, which is in turn the iconographic sign of Hades, the underworld, or hell. Jesus' decent into this watery tomb, into this inferno that envelops him from every side, is thus an anticipation of his act of descending into the underworld: "When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man" (cf Lk 11:22), says Cyril of Jerusalem...[As] Jesus came up from the water, heaven was "torn open" (Mk 1:10) or "was opened" (Mt 3:16, Lk 3:21); that the Spirit came down upon him "like a dove"; and that in the midst of all this a voice from heaven resounded...Heaven stands open above Jesus. His communion of the will with the Father, his fulfillment of "all righteousness", opens heaven, which is essentially the place where God's will is perfectly fulfilled. The next aspect is the proclamation of Jesus' mission by the Father. This proclamation interprets not what Jesus does, but who he is: He is the beloved Son on whom God's good pleasure rests. Finally, I would like to point out that in this scene, together with the Son, we encounter the Father and the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinitarian God is beginning to emerge, even though its depths can be fully revealed only when Jesus' journey is complete. For this very reason, though, there is an arc joining this beginning of Jesus' journey and the words with which he sends his disciples into the world after his Resurrection: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19). The baptism that Jesus' disciples have been administering since he spoke those words is an entrance into the Master's own baptism - into the reality that he anticipated by means of it. That is the way to become a Christian.

I'd like to take a brief moment to reflect on the tradition celebrated today in the West, the visit from the Magi. One of the things I have contemplated regarding this feast is that perhaps it's an image of science's relationship with faith. Ever since the Reformation and the "Enlightenment" which followed, there appeared for the first time in the Christian world a divorce between faith and reason, whereas up until this time faith and reason worked together for both had truth as their goal and both were used in order to learn more about God. So here we have the Magi, wise men, who studied the stars and understood their usefulness in navigation (and, I'm sure, in predicting seasons). We have no reason to believe that they were ignorant of the sciences of the day and were therefore learned men - and yet here they were, prostrate before the Creator of the stars of which they studied.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: Faith and science: "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth." "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are." (CCC, 159)

So we get to see in this moment of adoration a proper relationship between faith and reason (see also Benedict XVI's 2006 Regensburg address). I think we can also find in the visit of the magi the proper relationship between church and state, as these kings fell at the feet of the newborn King of kings. Regardless of our position in life - even as the head of a family, corporation, or nation - we are all under the kingship of Christ; no exceptions. The humility and adoration of the Magi highlight that beautifully.

So, regardless of whether or not you're observing Christ's baptism or the visit from the Magi, may our encounter with Christ in the liturgy and traditions of the Church lead us ever further into the transforming mystery of the Holy Trinity.