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Pius Parsch on Preparations for Epiphany

by pastorjuhl ~ December 30th, 2010

Epiphany, the appearance of the Lord! Even the word sounds strange to us of the West. Christmas is our feast. Its charm even the unbelieving world cannot escape. It is simply “flesh of our flesh.” But Epiphany? To make it more palatable some areas in Europe transformed it into the feast of the Three Kings; and as such it has become popular. But the concept and meaning of Epiphany seemingly remains foreign. What distinguishes Christmas from Epiphany? In the Divine Office St. Leo the Great answers with classic brevity: “Whom the Virgin brought forth on Christmas, the world acknowledged today.”

On Christmas we celebrated an historical event, the birth of Christ. Indeed, behind this event lay a tremendous truth, redemption through the incarnation – which, of course, was reserved for those who looked more deeply. In general, people rejoiced over the fact that Christ was born to us; and they stood about the crib with happy hearts. Epiphany, primarily, is not an event, but a dogma or a truth which only becomes concrete in the events of our Lord’s life. The truth or dogma commemorated is this: mankind is acknowledging Christ as God; as God Christ appears to men. We can, therefore, combine the two feasts in one short formula: On Christmas God appeared as man, on Epiphany this Man manifests Himself as God to the world.

Christmas is the feast of the incarnation, the Messiah’s appearance as man; Epiphany is the feast of His appearance as God. That Christ became man requires no proof; He merely had to be born, to live as man among men. But that this Man, this helpless Child, is God – for this proof is needed. And His birth would avail us nothing if we were not convinced of His divinity. Thus to the feast of His coming as man it was necessary to add the feast of His appearance as God. The prolog to the Fourth Gospel would seem to have anticipated the double mystery and the two feasts: “And the Word was made flesh (Christmas), and we saw His glory, glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father (Epiphany).”

Epiphany, accordingly, furnishes evidence that the man Jesus is God’s Son. We may ask, how could the Messiah authenticate His claims? Only by signs and miracles. Actually all of Christ’s miracles upon earth had this one aim, to prove to men that He is the Son of God. Some miracles He worked expressly for this purpose, e.g., the cure of the paralytic, “that you may know that the Son of Man has power to forgive sins….” Hence the whole of the Savior’s earthly life was an epiphany, His appearance as God before the world. We could readily cite numerous miracles in proof of tomorrow’s mystery. But the Church has chosen only three such wonderful facts to show that God has appeared among us. Briefly and beautifully the liturgy tells us:

The holy day we are keeping is adorned with three mysteries:
this day a star led the Magi to the manger;
this day wine was made from water;
this day at the Jordan Christ willed to be baptized in order to save us, alleluia.
(Antiphon of 2nd Vespers)

Indeed, these episodes are not in themselves compelling; grace on God’s part and faith on ours must be added. A star rose for the Magi. Grace worked within them and led them to faith and to the acknowledgment of the Babe’s divinity. Thus Epiphany is at the same time a feast of faith and a feast of grace.

Now we see why the Magi mystery was selected and given precedence, especially in the West. The Magi were the first pagans called unto faith in the Son of God; they are our representatives; like ourselves, they came from paganism. Epiphany is the feast of faith of the heathen world. We are celebrating our vocation to faith.

A further application. Ever since Christ’s death the Church provides proof of His appearance as God. Not so much by miracles, however, as by offering God’s word in the Scriptures and in sermons. Nor is such proof immediately compelling; there is need of grace and faith. However, in the midst of an unbelieving world the Church proclaims two facts to those who have grace and faith: God became Man (Christmas) and manifested His divinity to the world (Epiphany).

– The Church’s Year of Grace, I:259-261

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