Saturday, January 05, 2008

Some thoughts on Epiphany

As I prepare for the Feast of the Epiphany, here are some stream-of-consciousness thoughts, you may find interesting, and may wish to comment upon.

In the Roman Rite, it seems Epiphany is an anticlimax. A lot of that is the culture, and the mindset it encourages. But it's also true that traditionally, Western Christianity has placed more emphasis on Christmas Day, while the East has made more of Epiphany.

Certainly that's true liturgically. All the "bells and whistles" are for Midnight Mass on Christmas.

Also, you may have noticed certain parallels in the Church's liturgical year: Advent has a number of similiarities to Lent; you have two Octaves, one at Christmas, one at Easter; you have Good Friday, then a kind of mini-Good Friday six months later: the Triumph of the Cross; you have Holy Thursday, then 40 days later, Corpus Christi.

So, you have, in the Easter Octave, the 1st day is really big--with its late-night beginning--then the end of the Octave is not as big a deal, i.e., "Low Sunday" as it was traditionally known, now "Divine Mercy Sunday." With Christmas, you could see that both in the actual Octave-Day, but also with Epiphany, which marks a 12-day period that is some ways parallels the Octave.

A side-note...does anyone know about any history or theologizing around the 12 days, i.e., making anything of that significance? I.e., the rationale for the Octave is that, for Christians, "the eighth day" is very significant: God created in six days; the seventh day is the day of rest; and in Christ, it becomes the day of resurrection; and the eighth day is the beginning of the new creation. Baptismal fonts (I still need one!) are often eight-sided.

But 12 days--has anyone theologized about that? How about this: 12 is the number of the Tribes of Israel, and our Lord came first to Israel--he was born in a Jewish family, in the family of Abraham and David; but with Epiphany--on the 12th day--he is revealed to the world, by way of the (presumably) Gentile magi, who have traditionally been depicted of different races--hence, standing in for all nations. In the Gospels, Our Lord talks about sending the Apostles first to the tribes of Israel, but then, "go to all the world" are his parting words. I can't believe I'm the first to make that connection; I probably read it somewhere but forgot just where.

Finally, I offer this question: do we Romans anticipate Epiphany on Christmas? I mean, do we, on Christmas Day, move immediately to what Epiphany is meant to commemorate--hence, making the day anti-climactic?

I suspect I do: my Christmas homilies tend to focus on what Christ's coming means to the world; where perhaps that might be more meaningful for Epiphany. Perhaps a Christmas homily could focus more narrowly on "God-became-man"...except the modern mind tends to respond, "and what's that mean to me?"

It's not going to make me rewrite my Epiphany homily, which I'll post later this evening, after I deliver it the first time at 4 pm Mass...but it's food for thought; discuss amongst yourselves.

Oh, and Merry Christmas!


Anonymous said...

In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict comments on the connection of Epiphany with Jesus' baptism which the Eastern church has always made. I was quite stunned when I read it.

Also, once I spent the whole of Advent praying that my sister would baptise her baby. She decided to do so on Christmas Day but she Told me on Epiphany. It struck me as very appropriate. I definitely think that the whole twelve days of Christmas are important and like your idea of why. (I've never heard of any reaons for it, else.)

The Digital Hairshirt said...

Father, I am "on duty" tomorrow for Children's Liturgy of the Word, and I am thinking about the meaning of the word "epiphany" in that Christ came into the world on Christmas, but who knew Him then as "God among us"? Sometimes we get into the habit of thinking of Jesus as a Baby on Christmas and Jesus as the grown Savior on Easter without giving thought to what happened in between. Maybe the epiphany is to realize that God was - and is - among us at every stage.

Rambling thoughts - have to work on it more . . .

Fr. Ron Williams said...

I don't see the feast of Epiphany being any more anti-climactic of the Christmas season than Pentecost of the Easter season. In fact, I really don't see either feast being anti-climactic at all.

Remember that the climax is one that lasts throughout the entire season; it's not that we celebrate the day of Christmas and the day of Easter, and then we're done. The idea behind the octave is to take an entire week and celebrate it as if it were one long day.

But the celebration continues throughout the entire season. The beauty of celebrating the feasts of Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord (in the Christmas season) and the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost (in the Easter season) is that we get to experience the climax once again! In other words, the celebration of the Christmas and Easter seasons seems to get better and better as we pass through chronological time.

What I find so anti-climactic is the notion of "Ordinary Time." We experience the climaxes of Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord (and Ascension and Pentecost) only to take a nose-dive into the denouement of Ordinary Time.

I think it would be helpful to view Ordinary Time according to the liturgical calendar of the "extraordinary form" of Mass; that is, they are the "weeks after Epiphany" and the "weeks after Pentecost." This conveys more clearly the notion that we are called (with an apostolic mandate from Christ himself) to bring forth the light of Christ into the world in the weeks after Epiphany; and that we are called to bring forth the Spirit of Christ into the world in the weeks after Pentecost. This is a much better complementarity of climax and denouement, in my opinion.

As far as the 12 days of Christmas are concerned, you know me -- give me some time, and I'll get back to you on that.

Fr. Ron Williams said...

The feasts of the Epiphany of the Lord and the Annunciation are older than the feast of Christmas.

As best as I can tell, the fixing of the date January 6th for the feast of the Epiphany has mysterious origins. But until the introduction of the feast of Christmas in the fourth century (which is the only major feast to have its origin in the west), the feast of the Epiphany was basically regarded as the feast of Christ's nativity. When the feast of Christ's nativity was established, then the Epiphany took on the threefold theme of the visitation of the Magi, Christ's baptism, and the wedding feast at Cana. It is in the west that the feast of the Epiphany has had greater focus on the Magi event rather than on all three.

As a sidebar, the reason that the Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 6th/7th has little to do with their preference for Epiphany over Christmas. Rather, this is because they still use the Julian Calendar for setting their liturgical dates, which is off by about a dozen days from the Gregorian Calendar.

The reason that March 25th was chosen as the date for the Annunciation is because there were some early Christians who believed that Christ died on the same date as his conception. Why March 25th was specifially chosen again has mysterious origins. But it is interesting to note that the feast of the Annunciation can sometimes coincide with the celebration of Holy Week. As another sidebar, there are some Eastern rites that always celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, even when it falls on Good Friday.

Because March 25th was chosen as the date for the Annunciation, December 25th was chosen for the Nativity, because it occurs nine months later. It is also interesting to note the proximity to the winter solstice, which St. Augustine and many others have duly noted.

So why twelve days of Christmas? Unless someone else has a better explanation, it seems to be a coincidence that this is simply the number of days between December 25th and January 6th. While not at all attempting to downplay the theological significance of the number twelve, at this point of time I'm not aware of another explanation for the number of days.

Father Gregory said...

I read something awhile back(in The Tablet, maybe)to the effect that the writer wished that the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moskow, and the heads of the Reformed Churches would declare Epiphany to be the Christian celebration of Christ's birth. Then the "Commercial Christmas" could all be out of the way and we could settle back for twelve days of real spiritual preparation. That won't happen, but it would be worth trying.
I really think that Epiphany has its own wonders, and while it doesn't have the big build up, it has many wonderful lessons for the faithful to grasp.

Tc said...

It depends where you are culturally how important Epiphany is to you.

Feliz Dia de Los Reyes?

Anonymous said...

Fr. Williams, please allow me to clarify something from your "sidebar." Speaking as an Eastern Orthodox priest, I can assure you that we celebrate Christas on December 25 and Epiphany (Theophany) on Jan. 6. Some of our churches (such as Russia, Serbia, and Jerusalem) continue to follow the Julian calendar, and therefore observe Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 thirteen days later than those on the Gregorian calendar, that is, on Gregorian Jan. 7 and Jan. 19. Other local Orthodox Churches (such as Greece, Romania and Antioch) observe the immovable feasts on the Gregorian calendar.
However I do think that the observation that in our tradition Theophany (Epiphany) receives greater emphasis than in the Western litury, particularly the modern Western liturgy, is probably fair, whether it is observed on Jan. 6 or thirteen days later. We celebrate the Baptism of the Lord on that day, and the revelation of the Holy Trinity to the world (the voice of the Father, the Spirit descending in the form of a dove). It is also on this day that we bless lakes, rivers, streams and wells, and the priest begins going from house to house to bless each one. The whole period from Christmas to Theophany is thus a long season of light and joy in the midst of the winter - at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere!
- Fr. Benedict
p.s. - Sorry to post this comment so late!!