Introduction and Overview of
the Season (Octave) of Epiphany
Christ has appeared to us; God our Saviour comes to us in person. The Epiphany is not just the feast of the Wise Men from the East. “We celebrate a day made glorious by three miracles. Today the star led the Wise Men to the crib. Today water was made wine for the marriage. Today, in the Jordan, Christ consented to be baptised by John, for our salvation. Alleluia!” (Antiphon for Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat). By means of all these mysteries God reveals himself to us as king and as bridegroom.
God Reveals Himself
God reveals or “manifests” himself (in Greek, epiphaneia). From this time onwards men have knowledge of him.
A new-born child, weak and unknown like all babies, is sheltered in a stable. His mother and foster-father, as also the shepherds who come to visit him, know that he is, as the Prophets of Israel foretold, an epiphany — a manifestation — of God. Now a specially bright star appears in the heavens; it is the sign which God is giving to the Wise Men from the East — he is manifesting himself to Jews and again, as the Prophets foretold, to Gentiles alike.
At the river Jordan, one man comes, among many others, to undergo a penitential rite at the hands of John the Baptist. The heavens are opened, a Voice is heard, and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove: these things manifest that this one man is God himself who has come among the sinners.
In a Galilaean village people assemble for a wedding. Their gaiety is in danger of changing to disappointment because there is not enough wine. But someone is there who changes water into wine: another manifestation of God. At the very moment when natural happiness is seen to be uncertain and limited, God is at hand to provide us with a festival of joy unalloyed, where we are his own table companions, and he serves us with his own hands.
Feast of the Messiah-King
The Promised Messiah who comes to found the kingdom of Heaven makes his formal entry today. A man like ourselves, in the company of sinners, but able to bring us happiness by his illimitable power, he now restores the kingdom of justice and of love. He is Messiah-Saviour; but he is equally Messiah-King.
In the light of divine justice, he searches men’s hearts. He is king of poor and oppressed, a king whose majesty never grows less: to him all the kings of the earth (“the lords of Tharsis and the islanders of Arabia and of Saba”) as well as the humble people will come to render their homage. The world, at last, despite appearances to0 the contrary, is on the road to peace and love. God Comes to His Rejoicing Church.
The New Jerusalem, of which the Church is the foretype, (Revelation 21: 22), is ever a city of light. Each year the Church therefore gives a ceremonial reception to her Messiah-Saviour in the midst of her illuminations. It is a day of boundless joy: “Rise up, Jerusalem, and shine forth; thy dawn has come, breaks the glory of the Lord upon thee!”
The city is bright indeed with the lights she has herself kindled, but much more so because of the glory of God himself who is now living in her. The Church, in which God shines forth, is like a fortress at dawn above a dark plain.
God Attracts the Whole World
A city built on a hill cannot escape attention. Especially if it be lit up by the sunlight of divine glory. The star draws to Christ the Wise Men, the vanguard of the pagan nations. The redeemed people becomes one and universal; one after another whole generations enter “into the house”, that is, into the Church. Mankind believes in a star, and will ultimately reach Heaven “where we shall contemplate the splendour of the greatness of Christ, on the day when he will manifest himself for ever. That will be the eternal epiphany which we are celebrating now in advance.
The Bridegroom of the Church
There lies before us a future of never-ending intimacy with God, who takes our human nature in order to join us with his divine nature. He is, as it were, passionately in love with mankind. The Hebrew Prophets tell us that he loves us as a man loves his wife. He wants us to share his life, his name, his happiness. The Epiphany is a marriage-feast; it is because of this symbolism that the gospel about the marriage feast of Cana is assigned to the second Sunday after the Epiphany. In the human nature of Christ it is the whole of mankind that God is uniting with himself. “At his birth”, says St. Caesarius, “Christ gave himself to his Church in spiritual marriage”. Today therefore, the new and eternal Covenant has begun.
The Purifying Waters
In ancient times the bride was always prepared for her marriage by a ritual bath. The account of the baptism of Jesus, given to us by the Church on the octave-day of Epiphany, reminds us that by going down into the river Jordan, our Lord sanctified its waters. In the East the Epiphany is, like Easter, one of the normal occasions for baptism. Water sanctified by Christ is, in fact, a symbol of divine life. By accepting this life, by plunging ourselves into it, we escape from death and are purified from sin. At the beginning of January the pagans used to have a feast in honour of the sun. According to certain legends, springs and streams had miraculous powers on this day, and some of them even gushed forth wine. Now we have passed beyond the stage of mere legend, for baptism is in truth a miraculous spring which purifies us and unites us to God. “Today the Church is united with her Bridegroom, for Christ washed away her stains in the Jordan.” (Antiphon for the Benedictus, the hymn of Zachariah).
The Meaning of Epiphany
Advent prepares us for the season of Christmastide: from the birth of Christ to His manifestation in human flesh. It also leads us to prepare for Christ’s Second Coming.
Christmas is concerned primarily with the historic fact of Christ’s birth, while the Epiphany, besides being a celebration of God’s manifestation in human flesh, is concerned also with His second coming at the end of time. Our Messiah-King will return! Amen.
(Based on the text from the ‘Layman’s Daily Missal,’ Maison Mame, 1962)