Saturday, January 3, 2009


In the West, Epiphany is mostly associated today with the adoration of the magi, but its focus is more broadly on the Lord making himself manifest in the flesh, calling to mind, in addition to the magi, his first miracle at Cana and his baptism in the Jordan (the latter remains the primary focus in the East).

Even though the Baptism of the Lord has received its own feast, the Epiphany liturgy still bears some indications of the threefold celebration. For example, the antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah at Lauds ties all three together as actions of Christ claiming his bride, the Church:
Hodie caelesti sponso iuncta est Ecclesia, quoniam in Iordane lavit Christus eius crimina; currunt cum muneribus magi ad regales nuptias; et ex aqua facta vino laetantur convivae.
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan's waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.

Similarly, the antiphon for the Magnificat at Second Vespers has:
Tribus miraculis ornatum diem sanctum colimus: hodie stella magos duxit ad praesepium; hodie vinum ex aqua factum est ad nuptias; hodie in Iordane a Ioanne Christus baptizari voluit, ut salvaret nos, alleluia.
Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

Today, today, today: the use of the present tense in the English to translate the perfect in the Latin brings out the strangeness to the modern ear. We are accustomed enough to annual commemoration, but the near identification of the feast with the original occurrence seems nonsensical, and the identification of the day of the three events celebrated, which did not coincide in their original occurrence, is stranger still: like celebrating your birthday and wedding anniversary on the same day. (In fact, that's very nearly exactly what the antiphons say we're doing in regard to Christ.)

We operate entirely out of the sense of time as empty and homogeneous. As Charles Taylor describes it, in A Secular Age, "One thing happens after another, and when something is past, it's past. Time placings are consistently transitive. If A is before B and B before C, then A is before C. The same goes if we quantify these relations: if A is long before B, and B long before C, then A is very long before C."

Previous ages, however, saw this secular time as being punctuated by what Taylor calls "higher times". "[H]igher times gather and re-order secular time. They introduce 'warps' and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked." Thus, for instance, the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ "were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan. They are drawn close to identity in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, 'aeons' or 'saecula') apart. In God's time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion. Similarly, Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer's day 1997."

From such a perspective, it makes perfect sense to see these three distinct events in the life of Christ as closely linked--behind the scenes, as it were, via eternity. And similarly to see our celebration of the feast--in faith that Christ remains with us even today--as "taking us there" in a sense, to adore the Christ-child with the magi, to wonder with John at the opening of the clouds and to rejoice with the wedding guests in the choicest wine.

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