Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The Highly Beautiful Collect of the Epiphany

Edward Burne-Jones, Star of Bethlehem, 1890
Lost in Translation #68

The feast of the Epiphany in the traditional Roman Rite commemorates three epiphanies or manifestations: the manifestation of the God-Man to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi who brought Him gifts; the manifestation of Christ’s divinity at the Wedding of Cana; and the manifestation of Christ’s Sonship at His Baptism by St. John the Baptist. The Roman liturgical focus, however, is predominantly on the visit of the Three Kings. Hence the Collect:

Deus, qui hodierna die Unigénitum tuum géntibus stella duce revelasti: concéde propitius; ut, qui jam te ex fide cognóvimus, usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitúdinis perducámur. Per eundem Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who on this day and by virtue of a star leading the way didst reveal Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: mercifully grant that we who know Thee now by faith may be led all the way up to a contemplation of the beauty of Thy Highness. Through the same.
It is difficult for the Roman Rite to resist the temptation to allegorize altitude. The Collect for the feast of Our Lord’s Ascension parallels His ascent into Heaven and our mental elevation whereby we dwell amidst heavenly things (see here). On the Epiphany, the Star of Bethlehem likewise puts us in mind of things high above, though the parallelism here is more complicated. In the protasis or first half of the prayer, the Magi follow what is physically above them (the Star) to the Infant Jesus, who is ontologically the Highest, yet physically lower on the ground.
And in the apodosis or second half, one would expect the Star to be paired with the beauty of God’s height, but instead the bright Star is compared to faith (which sees through a glass darkly; see 1 Cor. 13, 12), and the Only-Begotten is equated with the beauty of God’s height. That in itself is a sentiment worthy of contemplation, namely, that rather than being a divine attribute or quality, the Beauty of God’s Height may be a Divine Person, the Son Himself.
There is also a lovely parallel between the star leading the Magi (duce) and the Faith that leads us (perducamur) to what is on high but once again with a difference: the star leads, but the Faith thoroughly leads, for per-ducamur is a more intense action than ducamur or the noun dux. The prayer goes on to identify faith as a source of knowledge. Faith and knowledge are often contrasted: faith is what we affirm despite a clear grasp of what is going on, while knowledge is what reason can affirm based on a certain comprehension of causes. Here, however, faith gives birth to knowledge: we may see through a glass darkly, but we still see something.
Perhaps the most difficult word in the Collect to translate is what I originally rendered as “Highness” and then called “Height.” Celsitudo, derived from the Latin celsus (raised high, lofty), is rather rare in classical Latin. The Roman historian Velleius Paterculus (19 B.C. - A.D. 31) uses the expression celsitudo corporis to signify a “a lofty carriage of the body.” [1] Although it makes no appearance in the Vulgate, the word becomes more common in the Patristic age: Church Fathers like Paulinus of Nola, Origen (in translation), Peter Chrysologus, and Arnobius use it, as does Augustine--eighty-three times to be precise (assuming the accuracy of the Brepols search engine). In the Theodosian Code, which is a compilation of laws under Christian Roman Emperors, celsitudo becomes a title, the way to say “Your Highness.” [2] If the latter is what the author of the Collect intended, then tua celsitudo refers to God the Father’s kingship.
Celsitudo is used two other times in the 1962 Missal, [3] both in order to describe God as the celsitudo humilium, which the latest English translation of the Novus Ordo Missal (2011) translates at one point as the “exaltation of the lowly.” [4] The Latin edition of the Novus Ordo retains the Epiphany Collect almost word for word, but the 2011 translation underplays the altitudinous dimensions of celsitudo and adds the theme of glory: “already by faith, may [we] be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.” [5] (And “behold,” I tautologically remark, is a less contemplative activity than “contemplate.”)
Another difficult word to translate is species. Although the word means beauty, most Catholics know it now as the term for the appearance of bread or wine that remains after the Consecration. To be clear, when the prayer was composed in the first millennium, it meant the beauty or reality of the thing, but after the reintroduction of Aristotle to the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it came to mean the appearance as opposed to the reality of the thing. If this newer meaning is kept in mind, then the prayer providentially takes on a Eucharistic connotation. The Magi beheld the Holy Face of Jesus, and we contemplate the beauty of that same Face veiled under both sacred species with the hope, as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it in his Prayer before Holy Communion, of forever contemplating that Face unveiled. The petition is asking for the Beatific Vision some time in the future, but one can’t help but think of the beauty of Our Lord under the species of bread during the act of Adoration that we can contemplate now.
The focus on God’s beauty during the Christmas season also brings to mind the specific beauty of the Incarnation. When he was asked to write Cur Deus Homo (Why Did God Become Man?), St. Anselm of Canterbury hesitated on the grounds that the mystery was simply too beautiful to describe. “I am afraid that,” he wrote, “just as I am invariably annoyed by bad painters when I see the Lord Himself depicted as of ugly appearance, the same fault will be found with me, if I presume to plough through such beautiful subject-matter with an unpolished and contemptible style of writing?” [6] The Word becoming flesh makes the invisible visible (see Preface of the Nativity), and yet paradoxically that revelation of the Word is too beautiful for words.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Ippolit cries out: “Is it true, Prince, that you once said the world will be saved by beauty?.... What sort of beauty will save the world?.... Are you a zealous Christian?” Prince Myshkin refuses to engage his drunken interlocutor, but inspired by the Epiphany Collect we may hazard a reply. The beauty of God’s sublime and Holy Face will save the world. Indeed, It already has.

[1] Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879), p. 310.
[2] Cod. Th. 1.6.6, 9.1.15, etc.
[3] The Collect after the Fourth Lesson on Holy Saturday and the Collect for the Feast of St. Francis of Paola, April 2.
[4] The Roman Missal, 3rd ed. (USCCB, 2011), p.845.
[5] The Roman Missal, 3rd ed. (USCCB, 2011), p.188.
[6] “Why God Became Man” 1.1, in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, eds. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 267.

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