Epiphany

There is a gentleman I know, from around here, who reads this Idleblog “sometimes,” and is nominally Catholic; although he’d be first to admit that he is what I call a “cradle case.” That is to say: baptized in a Catholic church, and spiritually abandoned thereafter. I love this guy, because he has honesty, candour, native humility, and a few other virtues that church-going Catholics often lack. So it was in character that he asked, the other day:

“What is Epiphany? Something must have happened that day. What the hell happened on Epiphany?”

“The arrival of the Magi. You know: ‘We Three Kings’ …”

This seemed a good starting point, and I was puzzling where to take it from there, when stopped short by the next question.

“What three kings?”

Let me put this succinctly. For a couple of generations, the Church of Kumbayah, which does not feel much need to catechize, unless people really insist — and then passes the job to volunteers, often themselves in serious confusion — has been depending upon the anti-Christian mass media to provide “the narrative,” the “backstory.”… And guess what.

My friend did, however, recognize the tune of the carol — a miracle, given the quality of my singing voice. That much was left, in anno MMXV: the tune of an Episcopal deacon, from the 1850s in downstate New York. He’d probably heard it in a shopping mall.

There is much more to the Epiphany than “the narrative,” which is itself rather more involved than the carol attempts to express. But it is nevertheless a beginning. It is a path towards understanding the manifestation of Christ — to the world, not only of His fellow Jews, but of the Gentiles. Indeed, this Feast was once, and may well become again, the crown of the Christmas season. For those who still allow Christ into Christmas, it takes the “birth narrative” of Jesus and magnifies it.

Much of what the Devil was doing, when he was overseeing Catholic liturgical reform in the 1950s through 1970s, consisted merely of jumbling the calendar and texts, as much as he could get away with. Lax, crass, and inadequate translations, often purposeful mistranslations, were sent out in multiple languages: a kind of Pentecost in reverse. The profound gestures, profound music, profound artistic and architectural expressions of Holy Church, were replaced by cheap and nasty parodies, to make them appear inane and pointless. Note the timeline: for this process did not start with Vatican II, as many “traditionalists” wrongly believe.

The destruction of the Epiphany Octave, for instance, was done under Pope Pius XII in 1955. This made possible the later reduction of the Epiphany itself to an apparent afterthought, that might be celebrated on its original date (as it had been through nearly twenty centuries), or more likely, might be flipped to one Sunday or another. With the anchor of this Great Feast thus pulled, the big ship could then collide with every other ship in the harbour, damaging all, and sending a few to the bottom.

To say the Devil (and I don’t mean Bugnini; I mean the Devil) did not know what he was doing is a waste of words. He knew exactly what he was doing.

It is a source of excruciating pain to faithful Catholics today — especially those who survived the previous desecrations — to discover that the heroic efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to restore the magnitude and magnificence and serene order of Catholic liturgy and its teaching, is now being methodically undermined, and that the spirit of desecration is returning. Our focus presently is upon false moral doctrine being encouraged from Rome, but this depends on a deeper falsehood of which our incumbents are hardly the cause. Rather they are symptoms: priests formed through weak seminaries in the glib spirit of the Novus Ordo; priests now bishops who often don’t know any better; who have become vague about whom they are serving, and are urgently in need of Christ’s help and our own very earnest prayers.

For the Catholic moral order extends from the Catholic mystical order, and it is that mystical order that is embodied in the Mass — unambiguously at the centre of Catholic life, day by day and century after century. The Mass is the means by which we take Our Lord into ourselves. “How to live, what to do” follows from that mystical installation. The homilies take their cue from the words and movements of the Mass; and surely not vice versa.

The Epiphany, and the ancient Epiphanytide (the latter half of the Christmas season), is essential to this proper ordering of things, in the procession from Christmas to Easter — a harmonic procession now rudely interrupted by an egress into so-called “ordinary time.”

In the Eastern as well as the Western Church, the 6th of January is an assembling together of all the strands by which Christ is recognized — made manifest, seen manifest, known — even before He has begun His public ministry. It is, as the Greeks have it, the Theophany — a word which connoted in ancient times the manifestation of the god to the worshipper. Indeed, in the Christian view, all such manifestations, and the very idea of them, must prefigure the central manifestation of Christ in universal history; unless they are plainly demonic.

The homage of the Magi comes into this, but also the Wedding at Cana, signally in the Eastern rite. All the events of Christ’s birth, childhood, and youth, are reflected in this Feast. That is why it could take precedence in the early Church over the Feast of the Nativity itself, which celebrates the birth only, nine months after the Annunciation. That Annunciation was also more important to the earliest Christians; and the significance of the birth was to be found more in the lowness or modesty of it; as, too, in the shocking nature of its announcement: by an Angel made visible in the shepherds’ field. Not to the wise who were visited in dreams, but to the lowly shepherds, who trusted in what they could see before them. (See the Church Fathers on this, usefully arranged in the Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas.)

One might even say that the Twelve Days of Christmas lead up to, are the preparation for, this Feast of the Epiphany. The light has extended day by day: from the manger, to the shepherds, to the kings from afar; to the first miracle in the wine, and through everything that leads, mysteriously and inexorably, to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection and the Coming Again.

All of this needs to be recovered, in its wholeness, its harmony and completeness, within the passage of our seasons. It is a huge task, building and rebuilding Christendom; but, “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” And so we must start again today, from out of the darkness by the starry light, in the company of Three Kings — bearing, with them, back into the Church, the finest gifts we are capable of presenting.

Surge, illuminare, Jerusalem.