In several medieval uses of the Roman Rite, white was the liturgical color of the season between the octave of the Epiphany and the Purification, where the Missal of St. Pius V prescribes green; this custom survived in much of France until the later part of the nineteenth century. It reflects the fact that the Masses of the first three Sundays of this period continue the solemnity of the Lord’s manifestation, extending the season of Christmas to include the entire forty days from the Nativity to the Purification. A similar custom existed in many places for the season after Pentecost, whereby red vestments were used instead of green; this is still the tradition of the Ambrosian Rite for all but the last four weeks before Advent.
The Office of the Epiphany itself refers to the conversion of water into wine at the wedding at Cana as one of the three miracles commemorated by the feast. (St. John 2, 1-11) The fourth stanza of the principal hymn of the feast, Crudelis Herodes, reads:
Aquae rubescunt hydriae,
Vinumque jussa fundere,
Mutavit unda originem.
The water pots are ruddy grown,
Whose waters by command divine
Their nature change, and yield pure wine.
The Wedding at Cana by Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua, 1305
Although this is sung every day through the octave, the reading of the Gospel itself is delayed until the second Sunday after the feast. The tradition of commemorating this episode alongside the visit of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ is a very ancient one; Saint Maximus of Turin refers to it as “the tradition of our fathers” in the mid-fifth century, and the three events are mentioned together in the Ambrosian preface of the vigil of the Epiphany. Of the various actions by which Christ manifests Himself as Our salvation, this one was undoubtedly chosen for such a prominent place because Saint John calls it the first of Christ’s miracles, whereby “he made manifest ('ephanerose' in Greek) His glory.”
The introit of this Mass is almost identical to the fifth antiphon of Epiphany Matins, taken from the sixty-fifth psalm: “Let all the earth adore Thee, o God, and sing to Thee; let it sing to Thy name, o Most High.” These words are sung on the feast because the three Magi were understood to represent all the ends of the known world, one from Asia, one from Africa and one from Europe. Although this tradition concerning their number and origin was almost universally accepted in the Middle Ages, and the connection with the Epiphany is fairly obvious, the liturgical writers of the era also knew of a curious story concerning the origin of this introit. It is recounted thus by Sicard of Cremona:
It is said that Augustus Caesar decreed for the glory of the Roman Empire, that from each city of the world someone should come to Rome, bearing as much earth as can be held in one hand, so that by this it might be clear that all were subject to the Roman Empire…and from this earth (terra) there arose a small mountain, upon which a church was later built, and dedicated on this Sunday. Therefore, on its dedication is sung “Let all the earth adore Thee.” (Mitrale V, 11)
(The modern reader should be aware that medieval authors often use a phrase like “It is said…” to indicate a story which may not be altogether reliable. However, there is in fact an artificial mountain in Rome, the Mons Testaceus, a heap of discarded potsherds near some warehouses of the ancient city; it is well over a hundred feet high, probably even higher in antiquity, and more than half a mile around at the base. It is easily seen to be a man-made structure, and the medieval mind perhaps found it difficult to imagine that such an achievement of engineering could be anything so prosaic as a garbage dump; whence the story.)
The Monte Testaccio in a 19th-century photograph.
The introit of the third Sunday after Epiphany begins with the same words as another antiphon from the Matins of that feast, “Adore God, all ye His Angels.” The reference to Epiphany is even more explicit in the Gradual, taken from the one-hundred-and-first psalm, “The nations will fear thy name, o Lord, and all the kings of the earth Thy glory.” On the previous Sunday, the Church reads of the first miracle occurring in the Gospel of Saint John; on this Sunday are read the first two miracles in the Gospel of St. Matthew, namely, the healing of a leper, and of the servant of the centurion of Capharnaum. (8, 1-13) The Roman centurion, when asking for the cure of his gravely ill and beloved servant, declares himself the inferior of a provincial carpenter, unworthy to receive Him into his home. This Gospel is therefore not simply the story of a miracle, but also of the nations’ confession of the divinity of Christ; even the might of the Roman Empire humbles itself before Him, as the Magi did at His birth. The story of the centurion is one of the very few that is used more than once in the temporal cycle of readings, being also the Gospel of the Thursday after Ash Wednesday. In the liturgical rite which originated in Rome, and is now celebrated in every corner of the world, his confession of faith in Christ has been part of the rite of Holy Communion for many centuries.
The remaining Sundays of the season after Epiphany have their own prayers and Scriptural readings, but their Gregorian antiphons are repeated from this third Sunday. On the fourth Sunday, the last which can occur before the Christmas season ends on the Purification, the Gospel recounts yet another manifestation of Christ, the calming of the waters of the Sea of Galilee. (St. Matthew 8, 23-27) Up to this point in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the miracles by Christ have all been healings; this is the first miracle of dominion over inanimate creation. Perhaps this Gospel was also chosen as a vague reminiscence of the Office of the Epiphany, in which the antiphon of the Benedicite reads, “Seas and rivers, bless the Lord, sing to the Lord a hymn, o fountains, alleluja.” The last two Sundays after Epiphany always fall after the Christmas season ends on the second of February, and the Gospels chosen for them are no longer manifestations of Christ, but parables.
At most of the Masses associated with the Epiphany, (the vigil, the feast, the two Sundays after the feast), the text of the Communion antiphon is taken from the Gospel. On the third Sunday, however, it is taken from a Gospel text that is not read at all in the Missal of St. Pius V. In the Tridentine missal, the ferial days of most seasons have no proper scriptural readings, but simply repeat those of the previous Sunday, a custom well-established in Rome long before Trent. Many medieval missals, on the other hand, including those of Sarum, Liège and most of the churches of the German Empire, preserve an older custom of the Roman Rite, whereby proper readings were assigned to the Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. The story from St. Luke’s Gospel of Christ in the synagogue at Capharnaum, (4, 14-22), is assigned by the very oldest surviving Roman lectionary, the seventh-century Wurzburg manuscript, to an unspecified day after the Sunday of the wedding at Cana. After Christ reads a passage from the book of Isaiah, He declares the words of the prophet to be fulfilled in His coming to Israel; it is the Lord Himself who manifests to the world the true meaning of the words of sacred Scripture. This Gospel’s former presence in the corpus of Mass-lessons is the origin of the Communion antiphon which is sung until Septuagesima Sunday arrives; “All wondered at these things which proceeded from the mouth of God.” (Pictured right: a page of the Murbach lectionary.)
The ancient lectionaries and medieval missals add a number of other Gospel episodes to the season, such as the arrival of Christ in Galilee (St. Matthew 4, 12-17), and several of the early healings performed by Him. The miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the feeding of the five-thousand is also occasionally counted as part of the Epiphany story. The Ambrosian liturgy’s Epiphany hymn Illuminans Altissime devotes three strophes to this event, more than it gives to the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ or the Wedding at Cana; then curiously, no further reference to it is made until the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, when it is read from the Gospel of Saint Luke. (9, 10-17) The same hymn is sung in the Mozarabic Rite, whose preface of the feast also dwells at length upon the event, but the Gospel itself is never read in the Epiphany season. The Wurzburg lectionary assigns the story to be read twice in the seventh week after Epiphany, first from St. Mark and then from St. Matthew, but these readings are not in the eighth-century Murbach lectionary, or the medieval missals. Blessed James of Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, is shown here presenting to Christ his much maligned (and unjustly so) Golden Legend, in which he says that the feast commemorates four miracles, and, citing the authority of the Venerable Bede and of the aforementioned hymn, notes that it was also called Phagiphania, from the Greek word for eating. He also notes, with some of the critical spirit he is habitually attacked for lacking:
“but concerning this fourth miracle, it is doubted whether it happened on this day, both because this is not read in the original text of Bede, and because it is said in the sixth chapter of John, where this miracle is dealt with, ‘Easter was nigh.’ ” (Legenda aurea, chapter 14)
Sicard agrees in rejecting this tradition as “not authentic”, and it is very likely that the prominent position of the story on Laetare Sunday is the reason why it was early on removed from the Epiphany season. As the church of Milan sings in an antiphon of Epiphany Matins, “Thou alone hast wrought many wonders, o Lord God,” and some must be saved for the rest of the Church’s year.