Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The Gospels of the Epiphany (Part 1)

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 latter 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.

The Adoration of the Magi, depicted on a Christian sarcophagus of the 4th century, now in the Pio-Christian collection of the Vatican Museums.
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 St 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.” St 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 Roman Gospel of the third Mass of Christmas has been the Prologue of St 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 St Matthew (1, 1-16) was sung before the Te Deum and the Midnight Mass, at Epiphany Matins, the Genealogy according to St Luke (3, 21 – 4, 1). Both of these 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.

St Matthew’s genealogy 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. That of 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)

Folio 19r of the Schuttern Gospels, an early 9th century illuminated manuscript produced at the Abbey of Schuttern in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
These texts occur in virtually every use of the Roman Rite except that of the Roman Curia itself, the ancestor of the Breviary of St. Pius V; they were retained after the Tridentine reform in the proper breviaries of certain religious orders, including the Premonstratensians, Dominicans, and Carmelites of the Ancient Observance.

Here is a marvelous recording of the Genealogy  of Christ according to St Luke from Epiphany Matins by the ensemble Stirps Jesse.

An equally nice version of the Genealogy according to St Matthew from Christmas Matins, sung by the Schola Hungarica; brevitatis causa, the names between “the wife of Uriah” and Jacob, the father of St Joseph, are omitted in this recording. (There is small mistake at the very beginning; the word “autem” is incorrectly added after the name of Abraham.)

Also from the Schola Hungarica, the antiphon “O mundi Domina”; the music is very similar to that of the standard seven O antiphons of Advent.

Aña O mundi Domina, regio ex semine orta, ex tuo jam processit Christus alvo, tamquam sponsus de thalamao; hic jacet in praesepio, 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.

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