Epiphany – already!

We have just awoken bleary-eyed in the year of salvation 2011 and already we have had to celebrate the great and ancient feast of Epiphany. The 12 days of Christmas have this year become 8, at least in England and Wales. The logic of such tinkering with the calendar is truly beyond me. It pleases no one and upsets precisely those people who would have gone to Mass both on the Sunday and the true day of Epiphany, 6 January. As with the transfer of the feast of the Ascension also to the nearest Sunday, a symbolic and traditional numbering of days has been destroyed. Moreover, as one of our parishioners, a working mother, pointed out, good Catholics (and not so good ones!) are deprived of the graces to be received from making the effort to go to Mass on the Epiphany in the face of inconvenience. Those who value the Church’s feasts, and its worship, will make the effort; those who do not value them will not. Why must that latter group be catered to in such an unsettling way?

Yet we must play the hand we are dealt, and today in England and Wales was the feast of the Epiphany (which comes from the Greek, and means ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’). The feast is an ancient one, and the earliest reference to it found so far is in the middle of the 4th century, though the context allows us to assume that it was well established by that time. In the eastern churches Epiphany commemorates our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan, when Christ was manifested as God’s Son and Messiah (Matthew 3:13-17). From the point of view of St John’s Gospel which does not deal with anything in the life of Christ before the ministry of John the Baptist, Christ “manifested his glory” at his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-11), and so this too came to be associated with Epiphany.

The Catholic Church gives Christ’s Baptism its own feast, and in its celebration of the Epiphany focuses on the visit to the infant Jesus by the Magi, the wise men whose relics I recently visited in the great cathedral of Cologne. The Church sees in this event what St Matthew (2:1-12) clearly intended of it, an example of the failure of the leaders of the Jewish nation and religion to recognise their Messiah – recognition comes instead from simple and powerless Jewish shepherds at his birth, and 12 days later, from gentiles represented in the persons of the Magi. It seems almost as if St John was commenting on this event when he wrote of Christ coming to his own and his own not receiving him (John 1:11-12). Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are resonant with symbolism: gold fit for a king in the line of David, frankincense for the worship of God in Christ, and myrrh fit to embalm this king for a tomb that would not hold him long. In the visit of the Magi we see that Christ is recognised by the gentiles as Messiah King, as God, and as the Crucified One, whose redemption will not be just for the Jewish people from which he sprung, but for the whole world.

My purpose, however, is not to give a full treatment of the feast (see here or here if you would like to read more). Instead, a brief reflection follows, inspired by the words of our Fr Gervase who celebrated the Mass for Epiphany in our abbey church (at which Theresa was received into full communion with the Church – ad multos annos!). He ended his homily with reference to the final words of the gospel regarding the Magi, which he said were addressed to us and there left us hanging:

And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Now I will confess that until now I had not seen in these words any more than that the Magi wished to avoid Herod now that they knew both where the new-born king was and what Herod intended to do to him. But, as so often in the gospels, there can be a deeper additional significance, and Fr Gervase’s words prompted me to think on it.

To encounter Christ, and to be open to that encounter, is to be changed. An encounter with Christ is an encounter with the highest expression of the loving mercy of God, indeed its personification: Emmanuel, God-with-us. It guides us into another way of living, another path through life. The destination is truly our “own country”, heaven, for as St Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:20), “our citizenship is in heaven”. It is a path, a way of life, that involves actively avoiding evil, just as the Magi deliberately avoided the evil heart of Herod. In the New Testament we are often exhorted to avoid those who live sinful and evil lives. This is not out of self-righteousness. We seek them out if we have sound hope to convert them; otherwise we are to avoid them lest their ways corrupt us.

A passive, indifferent approach to living in this world is not good enough for the Christian. The Christian must incline to good, and decline from evil. Both involve decision, action, courage and perseverance. Some will be called to go into the midst of more hopelessly sinful humanity to bring them the light we see manifested in Christ; others rather stay at home, as it were, maintaining and building up the household of God from which are sent those who bear God’s light to the world. Naturally the latter also bear witness to the light in their lives of service, just as the former also build up the Church by bringing more people into the household of God. Nevertheless, both are needed.

So maybe this new year we might seek the patronage of the Magi, that with the help of their prayers, we might spurn what is evil and embrace what is truly good, that others perhaps far from God might see shining in and through us God’s healing light in the midst of their darkness, and so be guided to their true home in the kingdom of heaven.

16 thoughts on “Epiphany – already!

  1. “decision, action, courage and perseverance” and most of all for us sheep -> seeking guidance. Thank you Father along with all priests guiding us in the midst of the darkness all around. May the year of our Lord 2011 strengthen us all.

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  2. Because “their citizenship is in Heaven” the brethren of The Messiah are but “aliens and pilgrims while on the earth”! So it is that they no longer have their portion with those who follow “the broad way that leads to destruction” for they have taken heed unto The Call to “Come Out of her, MY people”!

    The brethren of The Messiah have “Come Out” of this wicked world and it’s systems of religion for they have taken heed unto the exhortation to:

    “Love Not The World”

    ”For the WHOLE(not just a portion) world is under the control of the evil one”…….(I John 5:19)

    “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world will pass away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of The Only True GOD will abide for ever.”(IJohn2:15-17)

    “If you were of the world, the world would love it’s own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said unto you, the servant is not greater than his Master. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also.” (John15:19-20)

    “Where do wars and fighting among you come from? Do they not come of your lusts that war in your members? You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war yet you have not, because you ask not. You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts. You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is to be at enmity with The Only True GOD? Therefore whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of The Only True GOD.” (James 4:1-4)

    “The world cannot hate you; but the world hates Me, because I testify that the works of this world are evil.” (John 7:7)” and “The Messiah gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of The Only True God, Our Father.”(Gal 1:4)

    The Messiah testified: “If the world hates you know that it hated Me before it hated you.”(John 5:18) Truly, Truly, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life in this world shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall have it unto life eternal.” (John 12:24-25)

    John testified: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hates you.” (I John 3:13) “ James testified, “Whoever would be a friend of this world is the enemy of GOD”(James4:4)

    “Come Out of her, MY people”!

    Global warming, polluted air, land and waters, toxic wastes, sexual perversion, evil inventions of destruction, greed, hate, carnal warfare, dis-ease(no-peace),,etc,, are all destructive processes that have their root in “the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” all of which fuel the fires of mankind’s “imag”ination ;-(

    “Come out from among them and be separate”!

    Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world and it’s systems of religion, for “the WHOLE(not just a portion) world is under the control of the evil one” indeed and Truth……

    Truth IS, a lie never was and is not…….

    Abide in Truth……. francis

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  3. Thankfully if you are able to get to Extraordinary Form Masses you will have celebrated the Holy Name of Jesus and still be looking foreward to the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January. I’m afraid in my house there will be 12 days of Christmas despite the tinkerings by our “shepherds”.

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  4. I don’t know how or why the Holydays of Obligation generally have been ‘fiddled’ with. In this day & age we should have less difficulty getting to Mass on both Sundays & Holydays than ever before in history & yet Rome & our hierarchy ‘dumb down’ the obligations of our Faith as never before. Gracious me, you would think we had a Holyday every week & that would mean having to attend Mass twice.
    The same, in my opinion, is true of fasting & abstinence. Is it such a penance to fast on several days each year or to abstain from meat once each week? Our Church must think that we would renounce our Faith unless they make it so easy for us to abide by the rules & so they simplify everything to the ‘nth’ degree.

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    1. Good point – we have more leisure time than any generation before ever had, and we have better and swifter transport. How can attending Mass on holydays be more difficult now? Maybe because it clashes with X-factor.

      As for fasting, you might be interested (and a little surprised, as I was) to read what the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton said before Christmas – http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/8719196.Sussex_bishop_calls_on_Catholics_to_fast/ .

      Blessings.

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  5. Unfortunately, attending the Extraordinary Form isn’t the answer since we are obliged to follow the Holy Days of the Ordinary Form Calendar and celebrate the Epiphany. We may celebrate a votive Mass of the Epiphany on the day itself, but cannot omit it on the Holy Day/Sunday.
    Sad to say, the Feast of the Holy Name in the Ordinary Form followed the next day. Monday, but was optional. In that every name shall bend the knee at the Name of Jesus, I found its optional status disturbing but indicative of the whole ethos of the Ordinary Form; we no longer genuflect before we elevate the Sacred Host and Precious Blood; we no longer genuflect during the Creed; we receive the Sacred Host in the hand as though he were a bus ticket, and no longer bow the head to the tabernacle when the Holy name is mentioned or to the Missal when the saint of the day is mentioned. This has translated into ordinary life in that some people no longer genuflect (or genuflect well) on entering and leaving Church; bow the head at the mention of the Holy name outside of liturgy; sign themselves when they pass a Church or pray for the dead when passing a cemetery. Something has gone dreadfully wrong in that the Ordinary Form has not made the liturgy more liveable but simple diminished a great deal of Catholic spiritual Culture.
    I think that while we need to bring temporal gifts of gold and incense to the Lord today -the former for the up-keep the buildings etc and the latter to help us experience the transcendent which we have lost in the Ordinary Form and which the Holy Father is asking us to recover- but we need more to offer obedience to Holy Mother Church and her Tradition, and thus to God, as well as charity towards God and neighbour. Without these, the temporal gifts seem rather empty gestures.
    Thank you Father Hugh for your own thoughts on the Epiphany.

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    1. As you rightly point out, the Church has not been immune from the general tendency in the last few decades to dispense so much that has been traditional and enriching in our culture. The first example that comes to mind is the Speaker of the Commons discarding the customary robes of office. Perhaps many in their eagerness to be relevant to modern culture merely surrendered to it rather than extolling what was good in it and challenging what was not. This de-sacralising and de-traditionalising trend seems to spring, in part, from the death of an historical consciousness: anything old or venerable is of little consequence as we pursue progress for progress’ sake, and so change for change’s sake. When we forget history, we do not learn its lessons and, as the saying goes, we are doomed to repeat it. After all Holy Scripture tells us that despite the changing in fashions and externals, there is nothing new under the sun.

      So, given the response to the Epiphany article, perhaps we might spend some time in the near future thinking about what constitutes a Catholic culture, and why it is important that we have one, and one that is strong, vigorous and educative.

      Happy new year Fr Gary.

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  6. no words of wisdom to add, but lots of praise for Father Hugh’s thoughts on Epiphany and for his blog in general. As mentioned I was received into full communion with the Catholic church at Douai this Epiphany. This will always be a very special time for me. Happy Epiphany to you all, and a very happy blessed new year.

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