Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The Gospels of the Epiphany (Part 2)

As with the other solemnities of the Lord, the Sunday within the octave of the Epiphany has its own proper Mass, which begins with the introit In excelso throno; the Gospel of this Mass is that of the finding of the twelve-year old Jesus among the doctors in the temple. (St Luke 2, 42 – 52) The only canonical episode of the hidden years of Christ’s life has been an object of devotion as a mystery of the Rosary for centuries, and was formerly celebrated with a particular feast by the Dominican Order; it is fittingly placed by the sacred liturgy between His birth and the beginning of His public ministry. When Pope Benedict XV decided to extend the feast of the Holy Family to the universal calendar in 1921, it was fixed to the Sunday within the octave of the Epiphany, since the Gospel, which sets the key note of the whole Mass and Office, is the same as that of In excelso throno.

On the octave itself, the Church celebrates the public manifestation of Christ to the people of Israel in His Baptism, at which God proclaims, “This is my beloved Son; hear ye Him.” Sicard of Cremona comments that the second miracle celebrated by the Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, “is put off until the octave day, because (baptism) takes the place of circumcision, which was celebrated on the eighth day.” The public revelation of Christ to the nations, however, is deferred to Pentecost, when the Apostles begin the mission of the Church, which will last until the end of the world.

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 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 word 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 sare 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.

The Baptism of Christ, from the Menologion of Basil II, ca. 985
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:
Novum genus potentiae
Aquae rubescunt hydriae,
Vinumque jussa fundere,
Mutavit unda originem.
This is translated (in a somewhat archaic style) by the English Breviary of the Marquess of Bute:
A strange miraculous power is shown,
The water pots are ruddy grown,
Whose waters by command divine
Their nature change, and yield pure wine.
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; St 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 liturgical texts of many different rites. Of the various actions by which Christ manifests Himself as Our salvation, this one was undoubtedly chosen for such a prominent place because St John calls it the first of Christ’s miracles, whereby “he made manifest (ephanerose) His glory.”

The Wedding at Cana, painting in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, by Giotto, 1305.
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 (“Monte Testaccio” in Italian), a heap of discarded potsherds near the location of 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; hence the story.

A view of the Mons Testaceus in the 19th century.

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