December 24-January 6, 2002
volume 12, no. 162

Christmas and Epiphany

The intertwining importance of these two feasts has been lost on so many

The following is taken from "The Glories and Triumphs of the Catholic Church", published by Benziger Brothers in 1907.     The French name for Christmas, Noel, often used also in English, especially in Old English hymns and carols, is the abridgment of the word Emmanuel, God with us. The prophet had given this name to the Messias, and this great solemnity of the Church saw its accomplishment. In the popular language, the word Emmanuel did not remain unaltered. The feast of Emmanuel soon became the feast of Nouel, then Noel. It was first celebrated with the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, for it was believed that Jesus Christ was born then. Pope Julius I, having instituted the most exact researches about 340, ordered that the feast be transferred to December 25th; the Epiphany continued to be solemnized on January 6th.

    This, Dom Gueranger in The Liturgical Year on 'Christmas,' explains a peculiarity of the octave of Christmas, as old as the feast itself; although it is an octave of the firts order, it admits solemnities which are excluded from the octaves of Easter and Pentecost. The reason for this goes back to what was just been said. When the birth of the Savior was celebrated on January 6th, December 26th honored - and still does - the feast of Saint Stephen, December 27th Saint John the Evangelist, and December 28th the Holy Innocents. When the Nativity was finally fixed as December 25th, it was thought best not to remove these feasts. It is then in the octave of the Epiphany that the original octave of the Nativity of Our Lord is to be seen; hence it enjoys the same privileges as the other two great feasts of the year, because we count the Sundays after Epiphany, instead of those following Christmas, as those after Easter and Pentecost are counted.

    Communion was, for a long time, obligatory at Christmas and Pentecost, as at Easter. As a sign of the great joy brought to earth by the birth of Emmanuel, abstinence is done away with on Friday when the feast falls upon that day.

    In Rome on this day at Santa Maria Maggiore, which has the honor of possessing the holy manger, this relic is exposed all day. At St. Anastasia is offered to the veneration of the faithful the veil of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph's chlamys, or cloak, in which the infant Jesus was wrapped at the moment of His birth.

    In the Church of the Agonizing is exposed a piece of the swaddling-bands of Our Lord; at Santa Maria in Trastevere is shown, near the high altar, the place from which a fountain of oil miraculously burst forth at the birth of the Savior. Let us add that at St. Lorenzo, beyond the walls, on the feast of St. Stephen, two rocks of his stoning are exposed. On the feast of St. John, at St. John Lateran, is shown the cup from which, at the order of Domitian, the apostle drank poison which did him no harm; the tunic with which he raised from the dead the emperor's ministers who had tasted the same poison; and the chains with which he was bound when he was brought from Ephesus to Rome.

    Every priest has the right to say three Masses on Christmas - to give thanks to the ever-blessed Trinity, who cooperated in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, to honor the threefold birth of Jesus Christ: His eternal birth in the boosom of His Heavenly Father; His temporal birth of His virgin Mother; and His spiritual birth in our hearts, which He occupies by His grace.

    The first Mass is said at midnight wherever practicable, to remind us that before Jesus Christ was born the world was without the true light, and lay in darkness and the shadow of death. Again, it was in the night that He was born; and both His temporal and eternal births are mysterious truths, incomprehensible to our understanding.

    The second Mass is celebrated at daybreak, because the birth of Christ brought light to the Gentiles, whose salvation was then night, and because, according to tradition, it was about that hour that the shepherds came to see and adore the new-born Savior.

    The third Mass is said at daylight, because Christ dispersed the darkness of ignorance, and appeared as the Light of the world (John 1: 9; Isaias 60: 8). How Our Lord Jesus Christ came to be born in a stable at Bethlehem is told in the gospel of the day (Luke 2: 1-14).

    The birth in the stable was meant to show us, from the very beginning that the Savior had not come to establish a worldly kingdom, but a kingdom of grace, justice, and peace, and to lead us to imitate His example of poverty, humility, and contempt of the world. For this reason, too, the birth of Christ was first announced to the poor shepherds, and not to the high priests. God does not distribute His graces through respect for persons: He exalts the humble, and humbles those who exalt themselves.

    The Magi humbled themselves by traveling from the east to adore Our Lord. This is the feast of the Epiphany. It was fo ra long time blended with that of Christmas, under the name of Theophany, manifestation of God. It took that of Epiphany, or manifestation on manifestation, when the two solemnities were separated. The first manifestation of Our Savior had been to the Jewish people, represented by the shepherds. The second was for the Gentiles, the first-fruits of whom were brought to Jesus in the persons of the Magi. "These," says Dom Gueranger, "are the veritable ancestors of the Gentile Church. One was from Chaldea, the second from Arabia, the third from Ethiopia. They represented, at the crib, the three races of humanity offering their homage to the new-born King."

    The Gospel speaks of their presents: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This mysterious number honored in the first place the Blessed Trinity in the person of the Word Incarnate, but it also prophesied the triple character of the Divine Infant. He had come into the world to reign, and gold witnessed to His supreme power; He was to exercise a sovereign priesthood - frankincense, which should smoke in the priest's hand, was a present worthy of Him; His death would open Heaven - myrhh, a perfume reserved in ancient times to embalming, was there for the burial of the Divine Victim.

    As to their names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, their use is too recent for us to adopt them. It would be as difficult to sustain the responsibility of doing so as it would seem to us bod to attack them directly. Their bodies, transported from Persia to Constantinople, and later from Milan to Cologne, rest today in the cathedral of that great metropolis, in a magnificent hsrine, the most beautiful monument of the goldsmith's skill o fthe Middle Ages (Gueranger).

    The date, January 6th, recalls to the love of the Church still other memories. On this day Our Lord, baptized by John the Baptist, heard the voice of the Father proclaiming His divinity; on this same day He worked His first miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana, and St. Augustine tells us that January 6th was also the day of the miraculous multiplication of the five loaves in the desert (Sermon, i, de Epiphanus).

    All these events make this feast the great manifestation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and full justify its name of Epiphany. However, the preference of the Church is the for the mystery of the calling of the Gentiles. Nothing is more natural, since that mystery is supremely glorious for her. For has not Rome, the capital of paganism, become the head of Christianity by the vocation which, on that day, called all the nations to the light of the true faith?

    In Rome itself, and Italy generally, Epiphany is called "Little Christmas," and is made the time of gifts and special rejoicings, the real Christmas of the Gentiles. In England it was a popular festival, under the name of "Twelfth Night."

    The kings of France, up to the fourteenth century, presented, as the offering of this day, gold, incense, and myrrh. In the Middle Ages the faithful offered them also, to have them blessed, and they then preserved them as a pledge of Heavenly favors. This pious custom still exists in Germany. Instead of the bean in the Twelfth-Night cake, the people use a bit of myrhh, a grain of incense, and a piece of gold in the mountains of Scotland.

    Epiphany has never been a feast of obligation in the United States and, sadly, very little importance is placed on this feast, despite its significance. In fact, many feasts in the universal Church have been condensed and streamlined, even omitted, for the sake of modernizing the liturgy. When we realize the meaning of these beautiful feasts one has to ask why would they have diminished the significance of such magnificent feasts as the Epiphany.

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December 24-January 6, 2002
volume 12, no. 162
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