Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. Normally we say, “This is when the Wise Men visited Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” And we’re not wrong in that.
But why is it called Epiphany?
Simply put — it is the revelation of YHWH to the Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men. It is the proclamation of the glorious God to the nations, found in the person of Jesus, the God Word Incarnate.
I’ve been mulling over lectionaries and Bible readings lately. One friend was encouraging people not to do a typical “Read the Bible in a year” plan but to use the daily lectionary from the Revised Common Lectionary because it puts the Scriptures together in Christological, Christocentric perspective. I have a built-in skepticism about the Revised Common Lectionary, so I started evaluating other options, looking for something pre-modern. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with my friend Andrew (a mediaeval manuscript guy who is a theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic pondering Eastern Orthodoxy [you can see why we get along]), I learned from him that the Canadian BCP 1962 lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer is basically medieval.
Anyway, although this exchange also resulted in him sending me a 343-page Mass lectionary based on BCP-Sarum, I am going with BCP 1962, in large part because of the wonderful new Common Prayer Canada app from the Prayer Book Society! And its Scripture readings are doing just what my other, non-Anglican friend was lauding RCL for doing: Christological, Christocentric Scriptures.
Epiphany has been really exciting as a result — Psalms and Prophets proclaiming the recognition of YHWH by the nations, his revelation unto them, and Israel to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. You read this, and then you read …
not the three Wise Men.
This morning, the Second Lesson at Morning Prayer was the Baptism of Christ from Luke 3. And how does this end? “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” The revelation of Christ as God the Son!
The Eastern Churches use a different Greek word for today: Theophany. Today is the Holy Theophany of our Lord Jesus, and it explicitly includes the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.
Some closing thoughts, then. First: Psalm 87 sees a day when Philistia and Tyre, Babylon and Ethiopia, will worship YHWH. Isaiah sees in multiple places the nations coming to worship the Lord, coming to his holy mountain. The nations, the gentes (hence gentiles), will see the glory of the Lord and recognise him. The wise men who met the child Jesus and bowed and worshipped him were the firstfruits of this crop. We are of the nations as well. What was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures is being fulfilled here and now as the glory of the Lord is made known to the ends of the earth because of the ongoing life of Christ, himself the Lord, in his mystical body, the church.
Second: Babylon is gone. The ancient kingdom of Israel is gone. The Persian Empire is gone. The Roman Empire is gone. Some day, the Dominion of Canada, the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will all pass away. “Earth’s proud empires pass away,” as the hymn puts it.
But the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Heavens, revealed and made manifest in Christ at his holy Theophany — this kingdom will never fade. Let us hold to this hope and this citizenship above all.
The most popular English-language Epiphany hymn is, of course, ‘We Three Kings.’ This was certainly one of my absolute favourites as a kid. In this hymn, John Henry Hopkins articulates the traditional typological/allegorical significance of the Magi’s gifts:
2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.
3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.
4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
The final verse makes it abundantly clear:
Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies.
Now, it is highly unlikely that the magi actually thought that Jesus was God and a sacrifice. The fact that they worship Him in Matthew 2 is attributable to the fact that that’s how you treat a Persian King. Frankincense certainly has uses beyond the worship of deities, and myrrh beyond the preparation of corpses for the stone-cold tomb. Both are also of high importance in desert cultures.
Nevertheless, when you look back at Matthew 2 and the magi, and their encounter with the Christ Child, when you remember that Epiphany isn’t just about some nice, little story that inspires some great art and singable songs, but about the revelation of the Messiah to the nations, about the fulfilment of Isaiah 60 where the nations come to Israel who is their light. (Isaiah 60 is an intertext of Matthew 2.)
So, in fact, history suddenly becomes allegory, for Jesus the Christ, enthroned on His Mother’s lap is King and God and sacrifice.
Part of what sets Rome’s liturgy apart from that of the rest of the Latin West is the Stational Liturgy. The Stational Liturgy developed over the course of the Middle Ages, and it sets out where the Bishop of Rome (‘Pope’) will celebrate the Mass on the major feasts and the Sundays of Advent and Lent. For example, on Pentecost, the Bishop of Rome celebrates Mass at Santa Maria ad Martyres (the Pantheon), and red roses are thrown through the oculus, representing the descent of the Holy Spirit.
Pope Francis will continue the ancient tradition of the Stational Liturgy by celebrating Mass in the morning at San Pietro in Vaticano beneath Michelangelo’s grand dome. There will be a procession to San Pietro of pilgrims dressed like their mediaeval ancestors and bearing symbolic gifts. While most Anglicans today simply parade about inside their churches when they feel like having a procession, Roman Catholics to this day still have proper processions through city streets with banners and thurifers.
Liturgy, as I like to observe, is a living link between us today and earlier generations of Christians. It is not merely prayers read off a page and rubrics to be followed, but, if done with the heart and spirit, is a way to connect with the Divine and the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ of Hebrews 12:1. With that in mind, I would like to connect today’s Stational Liturgy with the ancient sources using one of my favourite Church Fathers, Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461) .
Leo the Great is the first pope for whom a substantive body of sermons survives. These sermons are important sources for our knowledge of the Stational Liturgy in Leo’s time; in fact, as Michele Salzman argued in her 2013 JRS article, ‘Leo the Great’s Liturgical Topography’, much of the Stational Liturgy as visible in Leo’s sermons was itself a construction of this fifth-century pope.
97 of Leo’s sermons survive, all but two of them essentially festal or liturgical sermons. Many of these sermons are transmitted to us with details of where they were preached or have allusions and external evidence to suggest where the feast was celebrated — hence our ability to put together the Stational Liturgy of mid-fifth-century Rome.
For the most part, Leo preached at San Pietro in Vaticano. This basilica was already a focus of much Roman episcopal activity, and Leo’s expansion of its use had a lasting effect on the Stational Liturgy; as Salzman notes in her article, by the year 800, San Pietro had 13 stational services each year. Salzman also argues that Leo’s preaching at San Pietro was a way to stress the growing importance of the Bishop of Rome in the lives of the lay aristocracy.
Leo’s sermons are not explicit as to where the Epiphany sermons, of which we have eight, were preached, but Salzman believes them likely to have been preached at San Pietro in Vaticano, based upon Gregory the Great’s (pope, 590-604) use of San Pietro on Epiphany (p. 219). Given the traditionalism of Roman liturgy and Leo’s frequent celebrations in San Pietro, this suggestion is entirely likely.
Thus, simply by celebrating the Eucharist in San Pietro, Pope Francis is connecting himself to an ancient tradition that goes back over 1500 years to the 440s. Of course, the ancient basilica was very different from its Renaissance successor today — in Leo’s day, it would have had many of the images associated with other ancient Roman basilicas. The aisles of the nave would have depicted scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as in Santa Maria Maggiore. The apse would have had a mosaic of Christ, as in so many old basilicas. The facade acquired mosaics in the fifth century as well, depicting the 24 Elders of Revelation with wreaths, the four Creatures, and the Lamb — once again, a now-traditional mosaic in Roman basilicas. Much gold would have covered the interior of the basilica as well. According to the Liber Pontificalis 47.6, after the Vandal sack in 455, Leo ‘renewed St Peter’s basilica and the apse-vault’ (trans. R. Davis).
Here’s a mosaic from Old St Peter’s that I saw in San Marco, Venice:
Thus, the setting, the same but different. I am uncertain what the current Pope will preach, exactly, but it will, of course, be thematic — the visitation of the magi to the Christ child. In his first Epiphany sermon, from 441, Leo proclaims that this is a feast for the entire human race:
After celebrating very recently that day on which inviolate virginity gave birth to the Saviour of the human race, the venerable feast of Epiphany gives to us, dearly beloved, ongoing joy, so that the vigour of rejoicing and the fervour of faith may not grow cool amongst the neighbouring sacraments of related solemnities. For it is with respect to the salvation of all humans that the infancy of the Mediator between God and men (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5) was declared to the whole world at that time when He was detained in that small, little town. For although He had selected the Israelite nation and one family of this people from whom He might take on the nature of all humanity, nevertheless, He did not wish to lie concealed amongst the narrow relationships of His mother’s dwelling-place, but wished to be known by all soon — He Who was worthy to be born for all. Therefore, to three magi in the region of the East appeared a star of strange clarity, which was more shining and more beautiful than the rest of the stars, and easily turned the eyes and spirits of the observers to itself, so that immediately there was a turning that was not restful since it seemed so unusual. Therefore, He gave understanding to those watching, He Who furnished the sign, and that which could be understood, He made to be inquired after, and the One sought offered Himself to be found. (Sermon 31.1; my hasty trans.)
Leo offers the traditional reading of the magi’s gifts, ‘The incense they offer to God, the myrrh to Man, the gold to the King, consciously paying honour to the Divine and human Nature in union: because while each substance had its own properties, there was no difference in the power of either.’ (NPNF trans. on CCEL) But he does not simply tell a Bible story or explicate a piece of theology; here, I believe, the ancient pope and today’s pope are similar, for Leo moves on to exhort his congregation to their own good deeds. Scripture, theology, worship, and the life of piety are all bound together in the minds of the ancient theologians and preachers. Leo thus closes Sermon 31:
Lift your faithful hearts then, dearly-beloved, to the gracious blaze of eternal light, and in adoration of the mysteries dispensed for man’s salvation give your diligent heed to the things which have been wrought on your behalf. Love the purity of a chaste life, because Christ is the Son of a virgin. “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul,” (1 Pet. 2:11) as the blessed Apostle, present in his words as we read, exhorts us, “In malice be ye children,” (1 Cor. 14:20) because the Lord of glory conformed Himself to the infancy of mortals. Follow after humility which the Son of God deigned to teach His disciples. Put on the power of patience, in which ye may be able to gain your souls; seeing that He who is the Redemption of all, is also the Strength of all. “Set your minds on the things which are above, not on the things which are on the earth.” (Col. 3:2) Walk firmly along the path of truth and life: let not earthly things hinder you for whom are prepared heavenly things through our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. Amen. (NPNF trans. on CCEL)
Thus does Leo the Great, through the Stational Liturgy and his preaching on Epiphany, connect the world of ancient Roman Christianity with our world today. Let us not neglect his memory or his teachings as we enter the season of Epiphanytide!
The Twelve Days of Christmas have passed. Today we celebrate Epiphany, the revelation of Christ to the nations in the persons of the magi from the East. A classic to read or listen to, then, is Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘Kings in Judea’, the first play in her series of radio dramas on the life of Christ, The Man Born to Be King.
There is a (probably illegal) streaming version of the plays here.
Or, get your hands on a copy of the book and a few friends, then do a readers’ theatre in your living room. I’ve done it, and it’s good fun. Alternatively, you can read the play in the back room of the Eagle & Child. I’ve also done that.
You did not assume human nature to conceal what was known of yourself, but to reveal what was not known. You declared yourself to be true God; by what you did you showed yourself to be true man. The thing was itself a mystery, not made mysterious. It was not done like this so that it might be hidden, but so that it might be accomplished in the way ordained. It was not secret to deceive anyone, but secret so that it might be carried out. If it is said to be mysterious, this is only to say that it was not revealed to everyone. The truth does not show itself to all, but it refuses itself to no one. So, Lord, you did not do this to deceive anyone, or so that anyone might deceive himself, but only so that you might carry out your work, in all things established in the truth. So let anyone who is deceived about your truth complain of his own falsehood, not of yours. (p. 231)
This passage is worth reading in Advent. The origins of this festal season, from now until Epiphany (January 6) or Candlemas (February 2) depending on your reckoning, are in its identity as the Theophany; to this day, the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates only Theophany/Epiphany in January, although the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions have developed Christmas and Advent over the centuries.
The main purpose of Advent, of Christmas, of Epiphany, is that we are looking towards God’s revelation of Himself in the flesh. He is most known and best known through and in Jesus Christ, who was born an infant lowly and an infant holy in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. This light of revelation to the nations came that all people, Jewish, Greek, barbarian, might be saved. And so, meditating upon Christ’s assuming of nature and declaration of himself as true God is a worthy meditation for this season of revelation and expectation.
We must remember, as well, that Christ comes to us to save us, not simply to reveal God to us. And he saves us through his atoning death on the Cross:
See, Christian soul, here is the strength of your salvation, here is the cause of your freedom, here is the price of your redemption. You were a bond-slave and by this man you are free. By him you are brought back from exile, lost, you are restored, dead, you are raised. Chew this, bite it, suck it, let your heart swallow it, when your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. Make it in this life your daily bread, your food, your way-bread, for through this and not otherwise than through this, will you remain in Christ, and Christ in you, and your joy will be full. (pp. 234-235)
In the second passage, St. Anselm is using language traditionally associated with the Eucharist, and not unintentionally, I reckon. But he is speaking about Christ’s atoning death on the Cross. This is the truth we are to meditate upon, or, as he says so vividly, ‘chew … bite … suck … swallow …’ Keep Christ and the glorious redemption of the human race ever before your eyes, and you will abide with him. This is salvation.
It is Epiphany. On January 6, we remembered the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child and worshipping him. This event signifies the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. And Epiphany comes from the Greek for manifestation. As we travel from Epiphany to Lent, we shall be looking at God’s revelation to us.
Thus, tomorrow night we are going to look at how we read the Bible, for the Bible is the inspired word of God, or, as some say, God’s word written. The Bible is a special book in the life of the Church and of the individual Christian. Cassian will be our guide.
(St.) John Cassian was a fifth-century monastic writer who lived in Egypt with the earliest monastic communities before moving to Gaul (France) where he established, according to tradition, two monasteries. At the request of a local bishop, he recorded the wisdom of the Egyptian Fathers for a Gallic context, first their means of life in his Institutes, and then their teaching in his Conferences. This week, it is the Conferences we shall turn to, specifically to the eighth, chh. 3 & 4 (find Chapter 3 here, follow link to 4). We shall look, not at the authority of Scripture (the sort of thing we Protestants argue in favour of all the time), but, rather, taking that as an underlying assumption, we shall observe how to interpret Scripture.
It will be a good time! We might even pull in some St. Augustine.
Posts here about Cassian (the first three are also about the Bible; (St.) John Cassian 1-4 are my intro to him):