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!
Today I visited Hadrian’s ‘Villa’ near Tivoli — an easily bussable distance from Rome. As I walked around, one of the many thoughts that struck me was the similarities between Roman architecture and early Christian architecture — the architecture of the West to the end of Romanesque (which simply became Renaissance in Italy, consciously looking for classical models) and the East for a lot longer.
It is my contention that these architectural styles are not borrowed from ancient ‘pagan’ cult but from domestic, public, and commercial architecture first and foremost. Ancient Christians were very wary of their polytheist neighbours, their spaces, and their cultic practices well beyond Constantine (contrary to what some people will try to tell you).
To return to Hadrian’s Villa, then. Many rooms and buildings at Hadrian’s Villa come fully equipped with apses — semi-cylindrical ends of rooms with semi-domes at their tops. The apse is a common feature of most churches within a certain period. It persists into the Gothic and beyond. Sant’Agnese, a seventh-century basilica in Rome, has a nice apse.
And that word — basilica. This is a Roman word, and not one related to religio. In contemporary church-building lingo, it refers to a Roman Catholilc church that has been all blessed up by the Pope. In ancient Rome, it referred to a large, covered building used for conducted business, originally based on a building seen by M Porcius Cato the Elder whilst abroad called a basilike — a royal building.
The basilica was a lawcourt and place of commerce and enterprise, not a temple. Also, it had an apse where the magistrates would sit to listen to people’s entreaties. This, in fact, is not unlike the original function of a Christian apse, where the bishop would sit in the middle flanked by his presbyters — today, you are likely only to see a painting of concelebrating bishops.
In the fourth century, Christians begin building churches in the form of basilicas, apses and all. The earliest, Basilica Constantiana, is now San Giovanni in Laterano — technically Rome’s cathedral. I’ve not visited it, but it was built in the fourth century under Constantine; much of that early architecture, I understand, is obscured by its mediaeval redecorating. The other major Roman basilica of the period is Old St Peter’s, remains of which are visible beneath — you guessed it — St Peter’s.* These Roman basilicas set the stage for centuries of basilica building to come.
Why do Christians adopt this form? Why do they take on this and many other features of ancient Roman architecture — columns and round arches and domes and niches for statues and on and on? Is it that wicked heresy of ‘Constantinianism’ destroying the pure churches that once met in houses?
Well, given the frescoes at Dura Europos and the Catacombs, as well as the sheer size of some of these ‘house’ churches, I do not think that they went reluctantly to basilicas.
The basilica was adopted because it is eminently practical. It is suited to Christian liturgical functions — basically as we know them since at least the late first century. The apse, besides any practical function, helps set out that side of the building as a focus. Adding a mosaic only helps — as with all the other embellishments, such as fancy capitals.
Just as Augustine put his secular rhetorical training into Christian service, so the architects of the age put their secular architectural training into Christian service.
*Maybe Constantinian, maybe Constantian. I have no dog in that fight.