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Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Meaning of the Epiphany

Today, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.   During the Christmas season, we experience three Epiphanies, manifestations, if you will, of the Christ.  We marked the first one on the night of December 24th, when the newborn Savior of the world was revealed first and foremost to Israel, represented by the humble shepherds.  The prophets foretold that the Messiah must first be revealed to Israel.  The early Church understood this.  That is why, while they celebrated the evening  December 24th with solemnity, they would then gather with their families for a simple celebration.

However, it was not until the celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord to the Magi that the early Church launched into its full blown solemnity and festivities.  The early Church believed that this was our Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi.   The celebrant at this afternoon's Mass said that perhaps the Magi were from Persia, which, at the time, was a great center for learning.   While many of the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, some remained and establishing their own communities and centers.   Thus, those who wanted to could read the prophecies of the prophets of Ancient Israel for themselves, studying them in the framework of the signs of the times.  The Magi who observed the star rising in the East probably made the link between this phenomenon and the prophecies, as they inquired as to the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews. 

These Magi used the intellect that God had endowed them with in their search for the King.  However, nothing could have prepared them for their final destination:  a Child with his young Mother in a humble house.  They did not find him in a resplendent palace, dressed in silken robes with his mother bedecked in jewels.  But, the lack of the all of the trappings of royalty did not phase them.  The Gospel tells us that they were overjoyed at having reached their final destination.  It mattered not to them that this holy Child, this infant King, was not in some marble palace;  all that mattered was that they finally reached Him in the end.  While they presented the Christ child with the precious gifts of gold, frankinsense and myrrh, the Lord gave them something more valuable in return:  He rewarded their faith and their love by letting them come into his very presence.  Having already fulfilled His promise of revealing Himself first and foremost to Israel, now, in the figures of the Magi, the Lord had manifested Himself to the entire world.   The Magi left overjoyed.

The third Epiphany, which we will celebrate next weekend, is the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, where the mystery of the Holy Trinity is manifested.  This is the first time that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit make their joint appearance in Sacred Scripture.  The Father is manifested by the voice coming from heaven.  The Son is, of course, Christ Jesus and the Spirit manifests Himself in the form of a dove.

I often wish that we could have retained elements of the older liturgical calendar.  In the Calendar used for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the traditional date of the Epiphany of the Lord is January 6th.  The Vatican retains this particular feast, but, most of the other countries have transferred this celebration to Sunday.  This is rather sad.  While I can see the argument of moving this Solemnity to a Sunday so that more of the faithful can participate in it, we seem to have lost the significance of the dates.  Perhaps we should rethink this transfer and restore the Solemnity of the Epiphany to its proper prominence. 

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