Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Heart speaks to heart!
by John Fencik, for the Inland Register
(From the December 17, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)
It’s Dec. 26. At the mall, Christmas decorations are coming down, post-Christmas sales are booming, spring clothing soon will be on display, and Valentine’s Day cards are now appearing. Yet the Church says “Just wait a minute … the Christmas Season isn’t over! It has a few more weeks! What about the Epiphany? The Baptism of the Lord? ”
The Epiphany (manifestation) narrates the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus – found only in Matthew’s Gospel. He wrote to a predominantly Christian Jewish community struggling with its identity following the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.) and expulsion from the synagogues (85 A.D.). The community sought to understand its mission as it coped with an ever-growing Christian Gentile Church. Matthew made them proud of their Jewish heritage and their seeing Jesus as the Promised One of Israel. Yet they had a wider mission to the Gentile world, as prefigured in the Magi – the first Gentiles to recognize and worship the Child as the newborn King of the Jews – the light of all peoples, as Isaiah said: “…Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
Epiphany or Theophany – a more ancient feast than Christmas – was already celebrated by the early third century in the Eastern Church (northern Africa) and was the original celebration of the birth of Jesus. The same feast also celebrated the Magi’s visit, Jesus’ baptism by John, and the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. But it was the baptism of Jesus that was the central part of the celebration. At the Jordan, one witnesses the revelation of Jesus’ divinity in the descent of the Spirit upon him and the voice of the Father proclaiming him God’s Son. It was truly the “epiphany” of the Lord and why the Epiphany was a solemn time for the celebration of baptism. The feast also was known as the Feast of Light – indicating the newly baptized had come to embrace the light (star?) of Christ! (Advent would develop as a time of solemn preparation for the catechumens just as Lent was leading up to the Easter Vigil.)
In the Western Church, the Epiphany would come to celebrate only the adoration of the Magi. This is evident in the writings of St. Augustine and sermons of St. Leo the Great. Although the other events would disappear, some remnant of the “baptismal” theme remained when in some Western Churches when the names of the catechumens (to be baptized at Easter) were enrolled on this feast! (St. Ambrose)
It is interesting that even in our present Liturgy of the Hours for Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) for the Epiphany, the three events are still commemorated:
• Benedictus Antiphon: Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine.
In “Epiphany Sermon 3,” St. Leo preached:
The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all people to find Christ.
So hold off on the Valentine’s Day cards and removing all of the decorations. Let the joy and the hope of Christmas continue to “enlighten” all those we encounter in the entire Christmas season.
(John Fencik is director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of Spokane.)
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