The Feast of the Epiphany is the continuation of the mystery of Christmas; but it appears on the Calendar of the Church with its own special character. Its very name, which signifies Manifestation, implies that it celebrates the apparition of God to His creatures.
For several centuries the Nativity of Our Lord was kept on this day; and when, in the year 376 the decree of the Holy See obliged all Christians to keep the Nativity on the 25th of December, as Rome did, the 6th of January was not robbed of all its ancient glory. It was still to be called the Epiphany, and the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ was also commemorated on this same Feast, which Tradition had marked as the day on which that Baptism took place.
The Greek Church gives this Feast the venerable and mysterious name of Theophania, which is of such frequent reference in the early Fathers, as signifying a divine Apparition. We find this name applied to this Feast by Eusebius, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Isidore of Pelusium. In the liturgical books of the Melchite Church the Feast goes under no other name.
The Orientals call this solemnity also the Holy Lights, on account of its being the day on which Baptism was administered; for, as we have just mentioned, Our Lord was baptized on this same day. Baptism is called by the holy Fathers Illumination, and they who received it Illuminated.
Lastly, this Feast is called in many countries the King's Feast; it is of course an allusion to the Magi, whose journey to Bethlehem is so continually mentioned in the Divine Office.
The Epiphany shares with the Feasts of Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost the honor of being called, in the Canon of the Mass, a Day most holy. It is also one of the cardinal feasts, that is, one of those on which the arrangement of the Liturgical Year is based; for, as we have Sundays after Easter, and Sundays after Pentecost, so also we count as many as six Sundays after Epiphany.
The Epiphany is indeed a great Feast, and the joy caused us by the Birth of Our Lord Jesus must be renewed on it, for as though it were a second Christmas Day, it shows us our Incarnate God in a new light. It leaves us all the sweetness of the dear Babe of Bethlehem, who hath appeared to us already in love; but to this it adds its own grand manifestation of the divinity of our Jesus. At Christmas it was a few Shepherds that were invited by the Angels to go and recognize the Word Made Flesh; but now, at the Epiphany, the voice of God Himself calls the whole world to adore this Jesus, and hear Him.
The mystery of the Epiphany brings upon us three magnificent rays of the Sun of Justice, our Savior. In the calendar of pagan Rome, this 6th day of January was devoted to the celebration of a triple triumph of Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire; but when Jesus, our Prince of Peace, Whose empire knows no limits, had secured victory to His Church by the blood of the Martyrs, then did this His Church decree that a triple triumph of the Immortal King should be substituted, in the Christian Calendar, for those other three triumphs which had been won by the adopted son of Caesar.
The 6th of January, therefore, restored the celebration of Our Lord's Birth to the 25th of December; but in return, there were united in the one same Epiphany three manifestations of Jesus' glory: the mystery of the Magi coming from the East, under the guidance of a star, and adoring the Infant of Bethlehem as the Divine King; the mystery of the Baptism of Christ, Who, whilst standing in the waters of the Jordan, was proclaimed by the Eternal Father as Son of God; and thirdly, the mystery of the divine power of this same Jesus, when He changed the water into wine at the marriage-feast of Cana.
But did these three Mysteries really take place on this day? Is the 6th of January the real anniversary of these events? We think it enough to state that Baronius, Suarez, Raynaldus, Pope Benedict XIV, and an almost endless list of other writers, assert that the Adoration of the Magi happened on this very day. That the Baptism of Our Lord also happened on the 6th of January is admitted by the severest critics. The precise day of the miracle at the marriage-feast of Cana is far from being as certain as the other two mysteries, though it is impossible to prove that the 6th of January was not the day. For us the children of the Church, it is sufficient that our Holy Mother has assigned the commemoration of these three manifestations for this Feast; we need nothing more to make us rejoice in the triple triumph of the Son of Mary.
If we now come to consider these three mysteries of our Feast separately, we shall find that the Church of Rome, in Her Office and Mass of today, is more intent on the Adoration of the Magi than on the other two. That the mystery of the Vocation of the Gentiles should be made thus prominent by the Church of Rome is not to be wondered at; for, by that heavenly vocation which, in the Magi, called all nations to the admirable light of Faith, Rome, which till then had been the head of the Gentile world, was made the head of the Christian Church and of the whole human race.
The Greek Church makes no special mention, in her Office of today, of the Adoration of the Magi, for she unites it with the mystery of our Savior's Birth in her celebration of Christmas Day. The Baptism of Christ absorbs all her thoughts and praises on the solemnity of the Epiphany.
In the Latin Church, this second mystery of our Feast is celebrated, together with the other two, on the 6th of January, and mention is made of it several times in the Office. But as the coming of the Magi to the crib of our new-born King absorbs the attention of the Roman Church this day, the mystery of the sanctification of the waters was to be commemorated on a day apart – the Octave Day, January 13th.
The third mystery of the Epiphany being also somewhat kept in the shade by the prominence given to the first (though allusion is several times made to it in the Office of the Feast), a special day has been appointed for its due celebration; and that day is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany.
The great Day, which now brings us to the crib of our Prince of Peace in company with the Three Kings, has been marked by two great events of the first ages of the Church. It was on the 6th of January in the year 361, that Julian, who in heart was already an apostate, happened to be at Vienne in Gaul. He was soon to ascend the imperial throne, which would be left vacant by the death of Constantius, and he felt the need he had of the support of the Christian Church, in which it is said he had received the order of Lector, and which, nevertheless, he was preparing to attack with all the cunning and cruelty of a tiger. Like Herod, he too would fain go on this Feast of the Epiphany, and adore the new-born King. His panegyrist Ammianus tells us that this crowned philosopher, who had been seen just before coming out of the pagan temple, where he had been consulting the soothsayers, made his way through the porticoes of the church, and standing in the midst of the faithful people, offered to the God of the Christians his sacrilegious homage.
Eleven years later, in the year 372, another Emperor found his way into the church, on the same Feast of the Epiphany. It was Valens; a Christian, like Julian, by baptism; but a persecutor, in the name of Arianism, of that same Church which Julian persecuted in the name of his vain philosophy and still vainer false gods. As Julian felt himself necessitated by motives of worldly policy to bow down, on this day, before the divinity of the Galilean; so on this same day, the holy courage of a saintly Bishop made Valens prostrate himself at the feet of Jesus.
St. Basil had just then had his famous interview with the Prefect Modestus, in which his episcopal intrepidity had defeated all the might of earthly power. Valens had come to Caesarea, and with his soul defiled with the Arian heresy, he entered the Basilica, when the Bishop was celebrating, with his people, the glorious Theophany. Let us listen to St. Gregory Nazianzen, thus describing the scene with his usual eloquence: "The Emperor entered the church. The chanting of the psalms echoed through the holy place like the rumbling of thunder. The people, like a waving sea, filled the house of God. Such was the order and pomp in and about the sanctuary, that it looked more like Heaven than earth. Basil himself stood erect before the people, as the Scripture describes Samuel – his body and eyes and soul motionless, as though nothing strange had taken place, and, if I may say so, his whole being was fastened to his God and the holy Altar.
"The sacred ministers, who surrounded the Pontiff, were in deep recollection and reverence. The Emperor heard and saw all this. He had never before witnessed a spectacle so imposing. He was overpowered. His head grew dizzy, and darkness veiled his eyes."
Jesus, the King of ages, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, had conquered. Valens was disarmed; his resolution of using violence against the holy Bishop was gone; and if heresy kept him from at once adoring the Word consubstantial with the Father, he at least united his exterior worship with that which Basil's flock was paying to the Incarnate God. When the Offertory came, he advanced towards the Sanctuary, and presented his gifts to Christ in the person of his holy priest. The fear lest Basil might refuse to accept them took such possession of the Emperor, that had not the sacred ministers supported him, he would have fallen at the foot of the Altar.
Thus has the Kingship of our new-born Savior been acknowledged by the great ones of this world. The Royal Psalmist had sung this prophecy – the kings of the earth shall serve Him, and His enemies shall lick the ground under His feet (Ps. 71: 9, 11).
The race of the Emperors like Julian and Valens was to be followed by Monarchs who would bend their knee before this Babe of Bethlehem, and offer Him the homage of true faith and devoted hearts. Theodosius, St. Karl the Great, Alfred the Great, St. Edward the Confessor, St. Stephen of Hungary, the Emperor St. Heinrich II, St. Ferdinand of Castille, St. Louis IX of France are examples of kings who had a special devotion to the Feast of the Epiphany. Their ambition was to go in company with the Magi to the feet of the Divine Infant, and offer Him their gifts. At the English Court the custom was long retained that the reigning sovereign offer an ingot of gold as tribute of homage to Jesus the King of kings.
But this custom of imitating the Three Kings in their mystic gifts was not confined to Courts. In the Middle Ages, the faithful used to present on the Epiphany gold, frankincense and myrrh to be blessed by the priest. These tokens of their devotedness to Jesus were kept as pledges of God's blessing upon their houses and families. The practice is still observed in Germany and other parts of the Christian world.
There was another custom which originated in the Ages of Faith, which is still observed in some countries. In honor of the Three Kings, who came from the East to adore the Babe of Bethlehem, each family chose one of its members to be king. The choice was thus made: the family kept a feast, which was an allusion to the third of the Epiphany Mysteries – the Feast of Cana in Galilee – a cake was served, and he who took the piece which had a certain secret mark (inside or underneath) was proclaimed the king of the day. Two portions of the cake were reserved for the poor, in whom honor was thus paid to the Infant Jesus and His Blessed Mother; for on this Day of the triumph of Him, Who though King, was humble and poor, it was fitting that the poor should have a share in the general joy. The happiness of home was there, as in so many other instances, blended with the sacredness of Religion. This custom of the King's Feast brought relations and friends together, and encouraged feelings of kindness and charity. Human weakness would sometimes, perhaps, show itself during these hours of holiday-making; but the idea and sentiment and spirit of the whole feast was profoundly Catholic, and that was sufficient to guarantee its innocence.
For the last several centuries, a puritanical zeal has decried these simple customs, wherein the seriousness of Religion and the home enjoyments of certain Festivals were blended together. The traditions of Christian family rejoicing have been blamed under pretexts of abuse; as though a recreation, in which Religion had no share and no influence, were less open to intemperance and sin! Others have pretended (though with little or no foundation) that such Epiphany customs are mere imitations of the ancient pagan Saturnalia. Even if this were true (which it is not), we would answer that many of the old pagan customs have undergone a Christian transformation, and no reasonable person thinks of refusing to accept them thus purified. All this mistaken zeal has produced the sad effect of divorcing the Church from family life and customs, or excluding every religious manifestation from our traditions, and of bringing about what is so pompously called (though the word is expressive enough) the secularization of society.
But let us return to the triumph of our sweet Savior and King. His magnificence is manifested to us so brightly on this Feast! Our Mother, the Church, is going to initiate us into the mysteries we are to celebrate. Let us imitate the faith and obedience of the Magi; let us adore, with the Holy Baptist, the Divine Lamb, over Whom the Heavens are open; let us take our place at the mystic feast of Cana, where our dear King is present, thrice manifested, thrice glorified. In the last two mysteries, let us not lose sight of the Babe of Bethlehem; and in the Babe of Bethlehem let us cease not to recognize the Great God, in Whom the Father was well pleased, and the Supreme Ruler and Creator of all things.
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