Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Durandus on the Epiphany (Part 1)

As one would expect for a feast of such importance, William Durandus’ commentary on the Epiphany is quite lengthy, and so I have broken it up into two parts. He was a bishop and a man of prayer, but not a man of science as we understand it today, which will perhaps makes some of these observations seem rather naive to us, but no less charming for that. (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, Liber VI, cap. xvj, 1-7)

There follows the feast of the Epiphany, a Greek word which means “manifestation” or “appearance”, which forms one feast together with Christmas; for it would have profited nothing that He be born, if He had not also appeared. (This is a paraphrase of a sentence in the Exsultet, “for it would have profited us nothing to be born, had it not profited us also to be redeemed.”) Now the Church keeps a solemnity today because of three different appearances, and for this reason, in the old codices, this day of the Epiphany has several different titles, and therefore is called by three names, namely, Epiphany, Theophany and Bethphany. It is called Epiphany in regard to that apparition of the Lord which was made to the Magi by means of a star.
A fresco of Virgin and Child with a Prophet, in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, ca. 180 AD. The prophet is variously understood to be Balaam because of the star over the Virgin’s head to which he is pointing in reference to the prophecy from Numbers 24 cited below, or Isaiah, the prophet of the Virgin par excellence.
The Magi were called Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and they were kings, according to the word of the Psalmist, “Kings shall offer thee gifts” (Ps. 67, 30), and again, “The kings of Tharsis and the islands will offer gifts; the kings of the Arabs and Saba will bring presents.” (Ps. 71, 10) ... And they are called “Magi” from the magnitude of their knowledge (a typically medieval folk etymology), for by the study of the stars, they knew that that star was not one of those set (in heaven) from the beginning, but rather the star of which their master Balaam had prophesied, “A star shall rise from Jacob, and a rod arise from Israel, and from Jacob will come one to rule.” (Numbers 24, 17 and 19). And therefore they were moved to come to Bethlehem, led by that star, so that they might adore the new-born king, whom Balaam had prophesied to them. (St Jerome asserts in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 2, 2, that the Magi were the successors of the prophet Balaam, a gentile like them.) And it is called Epiphany from “epi”, which means “above”, and “phaneia”, which is “appearance”, because the appearance was made to them from above, that is, from heaven, or else … because it is written, “Until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” And indeed, it was closer to the earth than the other stars; and these things came to pass on the thirteenth day from the Lord’s birth, on which day the star led the Magi to the manger.
Now some people say that that star was the Holy Spirit, which afterwards descended upon the Lord at His Baptism in the form of a dove, and (appeared) to the Magi in the form of a star. Others says that it was the Angel who had appeared to the Jewish shepherds, which is to say, it appeared to them as to rational creatures in a rational form, but to these gentiles as to non-rational creatures in a non-rational form. (This idea comes from the homily of St Gregory the Great read in the Office of the Epiphany, which deems the shepherds, as representatives of the Jews, “rational”, since they worship the true God, and are therefore told of His birth by a rational creature, an angel; the gentiles, on the other hand, as idol worshippers, are deemed “irrational, and therefore led to God by an irrational creature, the star.)
Others say, more rightly, that the star was newly made, and having fulfilled its office, returned into the primordial material. Others say that it fell into a well, and is still seen to appear there, but only to virgins.
The Adoration of the Magi, by Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, completed ca. 1305. The appearance of the star over the stable is based on Halley’s Comet, which Giotto saw when it passed close enough to Earth to become visible in 1301. In July of 1985, the European Space Agency launched a probe which was given the name ‘Giotto’ because of this image, the first of its kind to closely observe Halley’s Comet, approaching within about 370 miles of it in March of the following year. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. )
It is often asked how (the Magi) had come so quickly, that is, within 13 days, from the most distant regions of the earth to Jerusalem, which is said to be in the middle of the world, according to the words of the Psalmist, “Our king hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth.” (Ps. 73, 12) Isidore says that that star had appeared to them before the Nativity, so that they could be there on time. Jerome says that it was seen by them on the day of the Lord’s birth. (Commentary on Daniel, 2, 2) But they came on dromedaries, according to the prophecy, “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha” (Isa. 60, 6), which run very fast. And they take their name from “dermos”, which is “running” and “aros” which is “might”, and are smaller than camels, but run faster than they do, namely, as far in one day as a horse does in three. (Like most Western Europeans of his era, Durandus did not know Greek, and his etymology is fanciful. “Dromedary” derives from the Greek word “dromas – runner”; in his Life of St Malchus, St Jerome refers to dromedaries as “exceedingly fast”, but nowhere in connection with the Magi.)
Another question is why the Magi brought gifts when they came? I answer that according to Bede, in ancient times, no one went in to a king or lord empty-handed, which the Persians and Chaldeans observed. Secondly, according to Bede, they offered gold to the Virgin to alleviate Her poverty, incense against the stench of the stable, and myrrh for the consolidation of the Child’s members, and to chase away worms. Thirdly, because gold pertains to tribute, incense to sacrifice, and myrrh to burial; therefore, by these three were indicated in Christ royal power, divine majesty, and human mortality. Fourth, because gold signifies love, incense prayer, and myrrh the mortification of the flesh, three things which we must offer to God.
The Baptism of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1450 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The second appearance was on the same day, at the Baptism, after many years had passed, that is, on the thirteenth day of the thirty-first year, wherefore Luke says “And Jesus Himself was beginning, about 30 years old.” Therefore this appearance is called “Theophany”, from “theos”, which means “God”, and “phaneia”, which means “appearance”, because at that time the Trinity appeared, the Father in the voice, the Son in the flesh, and the Spirit in the dove.
But some heretics said that baptisms should only be done on the day of the Epiphany, since Christ was baptized on that day, and the Holy Spirit was not given to the baptized on another day., and the Greeks baptize on the same day: and for the sake of extirpating this heresy, the Holy Fathers decreed that no one should be baptized on this day, except in case of necessity.
The third appearance was afterwards, likewise on the same day, when a year had passed, and He was thirty years and thirteen days old, namely, when He made Himself manifest as God by changing the water into wine, which was the first public miracle, which the Lord did at Cana of Galilee, or was simply the first which He did. And this appearance is called “Bethphania”, from “Beth”, which means “house”, and “phaneia”, which means “appearance”, because the appearance took place in the house during the wedding feast.
On this day takes place the solemnity of these three appearances, but because the Church cannot perfectly solemnize all three on one and the same day, therefore the whole service is done about the star, but it mixes something about the other appearances (into the feast), so that it may be noted that there were three appearances in one day, which are read in the Gospel, as if they all took place on the same day. But the whole liturgy is sung today of the first miracle, because by it especially was the Lord’s birth made known to the Gentiles.
Two responsories are sung about the second miracle, namely, “Today in the Jordan”, and “In the likeness of a dove”, which many churches put after the ninth reading. (In the Roman Breviary, they are the first and second.) And it is in the first and ninth place for this reason, because baptism is the first sacrament of our redemption, by which we are reformed, and made like the angels, of which there are nine orders.
The feast on this day about three miracles was instituted for this reason, that anciently, it was a day of celebration in honor of Caesar Augustus, because of his three-fold triumph, by which in his time he subjected three regions to the rule of Rome, namely, Parthia, Egypt and Media. The Church changed that celebration for the better, namely, to celebrate Christ for His threefold miracle. (Durandus’ history is confused. Octavian, nephew and successor of Julius Caesar, was proclaimed emperor and given the title Augustus on January 16th, 27 BC, but there was no Roman feast in his honor on January 6th. He did annex Egypt into the Roman Empire, but not the empires of either the Parthians or the Medes, which occupied roughly the same areas, Iran, Iraq, and the Caucasus, in two different periods.)

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