Friday, January 11, 2019

The Gospels of the Epiphany (Part 3)

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 St John; on this Sunday are read the first two miracles in the Gospel of St Matthew (8, 1-13), namely, the healing of a leper, and of the servant of the centurion of Capharnaum. 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.

Christ and the Centurion, by Paolo Veronese, ca. 1571
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. (Matt. 8, 23-27) Up to this point in St Matthew’s Gospel, the miracles he recounts have all been healings; this is the first miracle of dominion over inanimate creation. This Gospel was perhaps 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 February 2nd, 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 by 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.”

The ancient lectionaries and medieval missals add a number of other Gospel episodes to the season, such as the arrival of Christ in Galilee (Matt. 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 St 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.

The Crucifixion, by Ottaviano Nelli (1421-24), from the chapel of the Palazzo Trinci in Foligno, Italy; Blessed James of Voragine, who was archbishop of Genoa, Italy from 1292 until his death in 1298 or 99, is the bishop on the left. (Photograph by Georges Jansoone from Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0)
Blessed James of Voragine, the author of the much maligned (and unjustly so) Golden Legend, says that the feast commemorates four miracles, and, citing the authority of the Venerable Bede and of the aforementioned hymn, notes that the feast 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 cap. 14)

Sicard of Cremona 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.

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