Thursday, January 06, 2022

The Psalms of the Epiphany

In the traditional Roman Divine Office, the only Hours which change their Psalms according to the specific feast day are Matins and Vespers. [1] On the majority of feasts, the first four Psalms of Vespers (109-112) are taken from Sunday, but Psalm 113, the fifth and longest of Sunday, is substituted by another; on the feasts of martyrs, by Psalm 115, on those of bishops by 131, etc. There are, however, four occasions on which Psalm 113 is not replaced, three of which are very ancient indeed, and the fourth relatively recent in origin.

The three ancient feasts are Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany, on which it is said on the day itself and through the octave. (Some medieval Uses, however, vary this.) This custom reflects the traditional baptismal character of these celebrations, which goes back to the very earliest days of the Church.

The Psalm numbered 113 in the Septuagint and Vulgate is really two Psalms joined together, those numbered 114 and 115 in the Hebrew. [2] It is the first of these which speaks of the passage of the Jews out of Egypt, and then of the Crossing of the Jordan into the Holy Land.

The Crossing of the Red Sea, depicted on a Christian sarcophagus at the end of the 4th century from Arles, France. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Marsyas, CC BY-SA 3.0; click to enlarge.)
“When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people: Judea became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea saw and fled (i.e. the Red Sea): the Jordan was turned back. … What ailed thee, O sea, that thou didst flee: and thou, O Jordan, that thou wast turned back? … At the presence of the Lord the earth was moved, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turned the rock into pools of water, and the stony hill into fountains of waters.”

The Church has always understood the story of the Exodus as a prefiguration of salvation in Christ, and specifically, the Crossing of the Red Sea as a prefiguration of the Sacrament of Baptism. The reading of the relevant passage from Exodus is attested in the very oldest surviving homily on the subject of Easter, the Paschal homily of St Melito of Sardis, from the mid-2nd century; it begins with the words “The Scripture about the Hebrew Exodus has been read”, and this custom continues into every historical Christian liturgy. Following the lead of St Paul, who says that the rock which provided water to the children of Israel in the desert was Christ (1 Cor. 10, 4), St Melito attributes all of the events of the Exodus directly to Him.

“This was the one who guided you into Egypt, and guarded you, and himself kept you well supplied there. This was the one who lighted your route with a column of fire, and provided shade for you by means of a cloud, the one who divided the Red Sea, and led you across it, and scattered your enemy abroad. This is the one who provided you with manna from heaven, the one who gave you water to drink from a rock, the one who established your laws in Horeb, the one who gave you an inheritance in the land, the one who sent out his prophets to you, the one who raised up your kings. This is the one who came to you, the one who healed your suffering ones and who resurrected your dead.”

Psalm 113, therefore, which speaks of the Red Sea fleeing to make passage for the children of Israel as they go out of Egypt, and the rock that becomes a pool of water, is perfectly suitable to the two most ancient feasts on which the Church celebrates the Sacrament of Baptism, Easter and Pentecost. Likewise, on Epiphany, the Church commemorates the Baptism of Christ in the waters of the Jordan, to which the Psalm also refers. On the fourth feast, that of the Holy Trinity, which was instituted much later, it reminds us that our Faith in the Trinity was first manifested on the occasion of Christ’s Baptism, when the Holy Spirit came upon Him in the form of a dove, and the Father spoke from heaven; and likewise, of the baptismal formula which Christ gave to the Church, as recounted in Matthew 28, 16-20, the Gospel of Easter Friday.

The Baptism of Christ, by Giusto de’ Menabuoi; fresco in the baptistery of Padua, ca. 1378.
The nine psalms of Epiphany Matins are 28, 45 and 46 in the first nocturn, 65, 71 and 85 in the second, and 94, 95 and 96 in the third. The antiphons with which they are sung, and which determine their meaning for the feast, are attested quite uniformly in the ancient antiphonaries. The choice of these psalms and antiphons reflects some very ancient interpretative traditions found in the writings of the Church Fathers.

Psalm 28 is sung with an antiphon taken from its first two verses: “Bring to the Lord, o ye children of God: adore ye the Lord in his holy court.” The full text of these verses is “Bring to the Lord, o ye children of God: bring to the Lord the offspring of rams. Bring to the Lord glory and honour: bring to the Lord glory to his name: adore ye the Lord in his holy court.” The antiphon removes the three objects from the verb “bring”; the act of bringing is in itself to sufficient indicate the gifts which the Magi brought to Christ at the Epiphany.

Although St Matthew does not specify how many Magi there were, the representation of three of them is one of the most ancient and consistent traditions of Christian art. It is commonly assumed that artists settled on three to correspond to their three gifts, which, in turn, have been read from very ancient times as symbols of Christ’s divinity, mortality and regality. This is undoubtedly true, but there is another, equally important reason for showing three. The Greeks, following the Babylonians, divided the world into three parts, Asia, Africa and Europe; this division predates Christianity, but was received by Christians and Jews as part of their sacred history. Each continent was believed to be populated by the descendants of one of the sons of Noah, Asians from Shem, Africans from Ham, and Europeans from Japheth. The three Magi are therefore the symbolic representatives of these three parts of world, coming to worship the Creator and Savior.

A third-century fresco in the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla, showing the three Magi each painted in a different color, to indicate that each one represents one of the three parts of the world.
Particularly in Rome, where people from every part of the Empire lived, an image of three Magi represents the revelation of Christ as the Redeemer of all men, and the coming of all peoples to salvation. The antiphon of Psalm 28 on Epiphany reflects the fact that the gentiles are also numbered among the “sons of God.” The antiphons of Psalms 65 and 85 are chosen on a similar theme. “Let all the earth adore thee, and sing to thee: let it sing a psalm to thy name, o Lord.” (Psalm 65, 4) “All the nations thou hast made shall come, and adore before thee, O Lord.” (Psalm 85, 9) Pope St Leo I quotes the second of these in his third sermon on the Epiphany. [3]

The Church Fathers also associate Psalm 28 with Christ’s Baptism. St Basil teaches that the words of verse 3, “the voice of the Lord is upon the waters” refer to St John the Baptist. (Homily 2 on Ps. 28) St Ambrose understands them to refer to the appearance of the Three Persons of the Trinity (De mysteriis 5.26), and likewise St Peter Chrysologus writes in a sermon on the Epiphany, “Today, as the prophet saith, the voice of the Lord is upon the waters. Which voice? ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Sermon 160)

A work known as the Breviarium in Psalmos, (traditionally but incorrectly attributed to St Jerome), explains the words of the antiphon of Psalm 45, “the stream of the river maketh joyful the city of God,” as a reference to both the waters of baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “After the worship of demons is overthrown, the washing of baptism and the pouring fourth of the Holy Spirit maketh joyful the soul, the city of God, or else the Church which is the city of God that is set upon a mountain, and is not hidden.”

The Adoration of the Magi, from the Benedictional of St Aethelwold, ca. 975. By this point the tradition has emerged of showing the Magi with royal crowns, inspired by the words of Psalm 71 cited below, and a verse of the Epistle of the Mass of Epiphany, “And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 60, 3)
A commentary on the Psalms of the later 4th century, formerly attributed to Rufinus of Aquileia (345-411), reads the antiphon of Psalm 71, “The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts” (verse 10), in reference to the Magi. “The Magi, led by a star, fulfilled this bodily, and the kings and princes of all the earth still do not cease to imitate them even daily. … by these gifts which are said to be brought to Lord, those faithful men are indicated, whom the authority of kings brings into the society of the Church.” It then refers the following verse, “And all the kings shall adore him”, to the end of the worship of the Roman emperors, for the sake of which Christians were so often persecuted before the reign of Constantine. “All the kings shall adore him, who were formerly wont to be adored, … and all nations that were formerly wont to serve earthly kings, will serve Him, that is our heavenly King.” (Commentarius in LXXV Psalmos; PL 21, 0939B). The mention of kings from three places in the East (Tharsis, Arabia, and Saba) also fits in with the traditional artistic representation of three mentioned above.

Psalm 94 was clearly chosen for the close similarity between its words “venite, adoremus, et procidamus ante Deum – come, let us worship, and fall down before God,” (verse 6 of the Old Latin version) and those of the Gospel, “venimus adorare eum. … et procidentes adoraverunt eum – we have come to worship him … and falling down they worshipped him. ” (Matt. 2, verses 2 and 11.) The antiphon with which it is sung on the Epiphany is therefore “Come, let us worship Him, for He is the Lord, our God.” This Psalm is normally said at the beginning of Matins every day with a refrain called an invitatory, which is repeated in whole or part between its verses. On the Epiphany, however, the invitatory and Psalm 94 are omitted from the beginning of Matins, and the psalm is said in the third nocturn, with the antiphon repeated between the verses in the manner of an invitatory.

In his Rationale Divinorum Officiorum (6.16.9), William Durandus also notes this prosaic explanation for omitting the invitatory on Epiphany, the mere avoidance of repetition. Before it, however, he explains that the invitatory is omitted “to show that the Church in its first fruits came from the gentiles to the Lord, not invited, or called by a herald, but with only the star to lead it, … so that shame might be inculcated on those who are late to believe, even though they have many preachers. For the Magi came to worship Christ, even though they were not called.” He then gives a second explanation, a more traditional one which dates back to his ninth-century predecessor, Amalarius of Metz: “Secondly, so that we who are daily invited and urged to worship and beseech God, may be seen to detest the deceitful invitation of Herod when he said to the Magi, ‘Go and inquire diligently concerning the Child.’ ”

A page of 1490 Breviary according to the Use of Passau, Germany. In the right column, the rubics just above the middle of the page begins “At Matins, we do not say the Invitatory, so that we may differ from Herod’s deceitful invitation.”
[1] The regular psalms of Sunday Lauds (92, 99, 62-66, the Benedicite, and 148-149-150) were traditionally said on all feast days in the Roman Rite. In the reform of St Pius X, psalms 66, 149 and 150 were removed, but the group thus reduced continued to be used on all major feasts, including Pentecost. The psalms of the day hours were likewise traditionally invariable for all feasts (53 and the eleven parts of 118), and those of Compline always invariable; this was also changed in the reform of St Pius X, but not in a way that applied to major feasts like Epiphany.

[2] There are four places where the Psalms are joined or divided one way in the Hebrew and another in the Greek. There are also psalms which both traditions have as a single text, but are generally believed to be two joined together, (e.g. 26), and others which both traditions have as two (41 and 42), which are generally believed to have originally been one, later divided. It is quite possible that these variations come from ancient liturgical usages of which all knowledge has long since been lost. Likewise, the meaning of many words and phrases in the titles of the Psalms had already been lost when the Septuagint translation was made in the 3rd century B.C.

[3] It is tempting to think of this as proof that the antiphon itself goes back to the time of St Leo, but it is of course just as possible that its unknown composer was inspired to choose this text by reading Pope Leo’s sermon.

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