As noted in recent articles by Shawn Tribe and Nicola de’ Grandi, the feast of the Epiphany is one of the richest of the Church’s liturgical year, commemorating several different events in the life of Our Lord. The Roman and other Western Rites have traditionally laid the strongest emphasis on the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus, which is recounted in the Gospel of the feast; the paintings and sarcophagi from the catacombs of Rome attest to the great antiquity of this tradition. In the Byzantine Rite, on the other hand, the visit to the Magi is read on Christmas Day, and the Epiphany is principally focused on the Baptism of the Lord, as may be seen in the Icon of the feast. The historical Roman Rite assigns the celebration of this event to the octave day of the Epiphany, which was officially renamed “the Baptism of the Lord” in the 1961 rubrical reform; this change was carried over into the post-Conciliar liturgy. The Epiphany is also traditionally the day on which the date of Easter is announced to the faithful, and the feast and its vigil are the occasion of several blessings in the Rituale.
At the first Mass of Christmas, the Church reads the revelation of the Incarnation to the people of the ancient covenant, represented by the shepherds; at the dawn Mass, these men of humble estate come to Bethlehem, and behold the Creator of the Universe as an infant sleeping in a manger. This private manifestation of God to the people of Israel on Christmas is complimented by a similarly private manifestation on Epiphany to the nations of the world, in the persons of the Magi. As Saint Fulgentius says in a sermon read during the octave of the Epiphany, “The shepherds were the first-fruits of the Jews; the Magi have become the first-fruits of the gentiles.” The Gospel of Saint Matthew does not say that the Wise Men found the Holy Family still at the stable in Bethlehem, where they had been found earlier by the shepherds, but the Church’s artistic tradition has depicted it thus, precisely to emphasize the connection between these two “epiphanies”.
The last antiphon of Christmas Matins is “God hath made known, alleluja, his salvation, alleluja,” words which are repeated at both Lauds and Vespers; the psalm from which they are taken, Psalm 97, has been associated with the Nativity of the Lord from very ancient times. A subsequent verse of the same psalm is sung as the communion antiphon of the third and most solemn of the three Christmas Masses, and is repeated several times during the octave: “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” These words are fulfilled in the Epiphany, when the representatives of the ends of the earth, the Magi, come to worship the Christ Child, God Incarnate for our salvation. Therefore, although the Gospel does not say how many they were, Christian art from the earliest times (and especially in Rome) has usually shown them as three, representing the three parts of the world known to ancient peoples, Asia, Africa and Europe, descendents of the three sons of Noah.
The Adoration of the Magi, by Flemish painter Gerard David, ca. 1490
From the earliest times, the gospel of the third Mass of Christmas has been the Prologue of Saint John (1, 1-14); this is attested already in the middle of the seventh century in the very oldest lectionary of the Roman Rite, the Comes Romanus of Wurzburg. In the high Middle Ages, the custom emerged of reading this same text at the end of the Mass, as part of the celebrant’s thanksgiving. At the third Mass of Christmas, therefore, the gospel of the Epiphany was read in its place, uniting the revelation of the Incarnate Word to Israel with His revelation to the nations. It is worth noting that the gospels of both Christmas and Epiphany end with a genuflection, by which we imitate the Magi in kneeling before the Divine Infant, just as we honor the Incarnation every Sunday by genuflecting during the Creed at the words “Et incarnatus est.” (The 1961 rubrical reform of Pope John XXIII prescribes that there be no last Gospel at this Mass.)
In the Middle Ages, another pair of gospels was added to the liturgy to associate the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany. At Matins of Christmas, the Genealogy of Christ according to Saint Matthew (1, 1-16) was sung before the Te Deum and the Midnight Mass, at Epiphany Matins, the Genealogy according to Saint Luke (3, 21 – 4, 1). Both gospels were normally sung with the same ceremonies that accompany the singing of the gospel at Solemn Mass. Since these texts are fairly repetitive, musicians composed special and elaborate music for them; they were often set for two deacons or groups of deacons, who would alternate the verses. The Genealogy from St. Matthew’s Gospel was clearly chosen for Christmas because it ends with St. Joseph, “the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, that is called Christ.” In German speaking lands, it was usually follow by the antiphon “O mundi Domina”, a final O antiphon on the cusp between Advent and Christmas. The Genealogy according to St. Luke was then assigned to Epiphany because it is preceded by an account of the Baptism of Christ (vs. 21-23), one of the principal events commemorated by the feast. This gospel ends with Christ departing into the desert “lead by the Spirit”, a distant prelude to the coming Lenten fast. Commenting on the reason why these two gospels are read on their respective feasts, Sicard of Cremona writes in about 1200, “Matthew reckons (the genealogy) by descending (from Abraham to Joseph), because he is describing the humanity of Christ, by which He descends to us. Luke recounts (the genealogy) ascending, since from the baptized One he ascends to God, showing the effects of baptism; because the baptized become sons of God.” (Mitrale, V, 6).
O mundi Domina, regio ex semine orta, ex tuo jam processit Christus alvo, tamquam sponsus de thalamo; hic jacet in praeseio, qui et sidera regit.
O Lady of the world, born of royal descent, Christ hath now come forth from Thy womb, as a bridegroom from his chamber; he lieth in a manger, that also ruleth the stars.
In the Missal and Breviary of St. Pius V, and subsequent revisions, the octave day of the Epiphany is textually identical to the Epiphany itself, with the exception of the three prayers of the Mass, the Gospel, which is Saint John’s account of the Baptism (1, 29-34), and the readings of Matins. Prior to the Tridentine reform, however, the Office also had a large number of proper antiphons for the psalms of Matins, Lauds and Vespers, all of them centered on the Baptism. These were entirely suppressed from the Roman Breviary in the Tridentine revision, a most uncharacteristic act of a reform that was generally very conservative. The reason would appear to be that these antiphons are clearly Greek in origin; indeed, they were even recognized to be such by the liturgical commentators of the medieval period. These were also retained by several breviaries of the religious orders after Trent; the antiphons for the Gospel canticles are:
At the Magnificat of First Vespers : The soldier baptizeth the king, the servant his Lord, John the Savior: the water of the Jordan is struck dumb, the dove beareth witness: the Father’s voice is heard: this is my beloved Son.
At the Benedictus : John the Forerunner exsulteth, when, the Lord having been baptized in the Jordan, the cause of rejoicing to the world is made: remission of our sins is made. ‘O thou that sanctifieth the waters’, let us all cry out, ‘have mercy upon us!’
At the Magnificat of Second Vespers : The fountains of the waters are sanctified, as Christ appeareth in glory to the world: draw ye waters from the fountains of the Savior; for now Christ our God hath sanctified every creature.