Saturday, 7 January 2012
Just What IS the Epiphany Anyway?
The Solemnity of the Lord's Epiphany is one of the most important liturgies in the Church's year. But sometimes it can seem as if it's just a hangover from Christmas - the wise men have finally arrived to present their gifts to the newborn king, long after every Catholic primary school in the country has rehearsed this encounter in a month of pre-Christmas nativity plays. Of course for Latin rite Catholics, this encounter is the main focus of the Epiphany. The wise men represent the Gentile people to whom God extends his salvation. They approach him through their observance of the natural world, and in faith, representing the mutual interdependence of faith and reason in the Christian life. And they give Jesus gifts that indicate who he is: gold for a king, frankincense as an offering for a priest, and myrrh as a tradition burial spice, to indicate Jesus' death as a prophet. Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning "manifestation", because in the encounter with the wise men, Jesus is revealed to be the King of the World, the Priest who is Himself God, and the Prophet who will not only die for the sake of the truth, but will rise again so that we might have new life.
But the Epiphany is also connected with two other manifestations of Christ's divinity. The second is the Wedding at Canaa, where in obedience to Mary his mother Jesus works his first miracle, the turning of the water into wine. In this way, St John tells us, Jesus "manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him". The third manifestation which is connected to the Epiphany is Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan. At this event, the Father bears witness to his beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit hovers over him, the New Creation, just as the spirit hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation in Genesis. In being baptised, Jesus not only identifies with us and gives us an example, but he sanctifies the waters, so that they are not just a symbol of conversion but also a means of grace. Though the Baptism now has its own separate celebration in the Latin rite since 1955, it is the primary meaning of the Epiphany in many Eastern Catholic and Orthodox traditions, where they have the Blessing of the Waters, and people swim or dance in ice cold water to recall Christ in the Jordan. Brrrr!!! Even for us, the Latin rite antiphons in the Divine Office still recall the three intertwining meanings of the Epiphany:
Today the Church has been joined to her heavenly bridegroom, since Christ has purified her of her sins in the river Jordan: the Magi hasten to the royal wedding and offer gifts: the wedding guests rejoice since Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.