by Father Richard G. Cipolla
“And behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.”
|Adoration of the Kings
Museo del Prado, Madrid
So you light your window candles, plug in the lights on the Christmas tree, pause to look at the crèche with the Magi now come to worship the baby Jesus. You do so because you know what time it is. It is the twelfth day of Christmas, not the eighth, not the tenth, but the twelfth day of Christmas, that day whose observation is older than the first day of Christmas, the day with the strange sounding Greek name, Epiphany, strange but no matter, this is the time, this is the twelfth day of Christmas. And you look out and you notice the Christmas trees on your neighbors’ lawns, belly up, needles falling off, ready for the garbage man to pick up. Christmas disposed of before its time, its time of twelve days, on the first day of Christmas my true love gave me to me.
One of tragedies of the past forty years, and tragedy is no overstatement, is the loss of the Christian understanding of the sanctification of time, the understanding of et verbum caro factum est, the understanding of the timeless eternal God coming into time, transforming what were ticks on a clock into the presence of eternity in what appears to be ordinary time. The eternal in time, the infinite in the womb of Mary. Einstein showed the relativity of time. Christmas shows the absoluteness of time, God’s time, overlaying, interpenetrating, pushing aside, cajoling, whispering: the ticks on the clock forever joined to eternity, how silently the wondrous gift is given, silence, time. A whole culture thought that what happened on Christmas was so final, so important, so time changing that it talked about ante Christum, before Christ, and then, when time had changed, become sanctified by this event, anno Domini, in the year of our Lord AD. There have been recent attempts at denying this time changing event, trying to substitute AD with CE, the common era. But common to whom? And why bother with common time? Only the most ardent secularists have gotten on the CE bandwagon, for everyone understands that what happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago either changed time or it did not. Either AD is something real and important or forget about the whole thing. Either there are twelve days of Christmas or forget about it. And yet we face the denial of this sanctification of time, a sanctification that does not deny secular time but penetrates time and makes it eternal even in time. It is merely bothersome that the forces of secularization personified by the New York Times are blind to the sanctification of time. It is tragic when our own Catholic people forget what happened two thousand years ago, forget because of a well meaning but deeply wrong headed movement within the Catholic Church and blessed by the local Magisterium that has treated the specificity of feasts as if they were movable, as if twelve could be five or seven or ten, as if forty could be thirty eight or forty one, as if these time warping events like the Epiphany or the Ascension could be transferred to another date, another time. And all of this in the name of making things easier for Catholics: move these feasts to Sundays so that Catholics will not have to endure the inconvenience of having to go to Mass on twelve days after Christmas or forty days after Easter. As if events could be transferred, as if birthdays could be celebrated on the nearest convenient day. as if July 4, as if 9/11 could be celebrated on the nearest Sunday. Possibly no other innovation of the post-Conciliar period has caused such deep damage to the people’s understanding of the sanctification of time by the Incarnation as this deeply wrong -headed initiative of the Magisterium, all in the name of convenience. But the point of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is its inconvenience. It is jarring, it is not ordinary, it is sui generis, it can never be contained even by Sunday, the commemoration of the Resurrection. It is precisely the interpenetration of the sacred into secular time that is the mark of the new age, the age of the coming of the Lord, the age of the Word made flesh; and so it is precisely the inconvenience of our people, living in the secular world that knows not and does not want to know about the incarnation of God to save his people, to save them, to save us; it is precisely this obligatory jolt of the Epiphany on a Tuesday or Thursday or Saturday, this turning away from what is ephemeral to what is deeply real: this jolt, this is the reminder to each Catholic of what is really real, of what has become of time.
And yet, and yet, the event that is commemorated by the feast of the Epiphany most probably did not occur twelve days after Jesus’ birth. This is true. But it is precisely the Church Year, with its fixed feasts and fasts, that is the place in which this sanctification of time is played out, literally played out, the Church Year is the matrix and the image of space time changed by the incarnation of God. What do we commemorate here today? We commemorate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, we commemorate that event, the visit of the mysterious Wise Men, the Three Kings, from distant lands, Gentiles not Jews, who, guided by a star, a star brilliant in time but brilliant because of the peculiar time it was, travel a long distance, and for what? To see something religious? To come to understanding of the religious impulse, to fulfill the quest for wisdom?
“A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year, for a journey, and such a long journey, the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.” They came, they endured what ever they encountered, they were never sure of what they were seeking, what the star meant, but they went on, and when they arrived what they did what is the heart of the matter, the heart of whatever there is to do, inconvenient or convenient, Sunday or Wednesday, they fell down and worshipped him. Their gifts are wonderful: gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gold for a king, the frankincense as a mark of honor, the myrrh pointing to the Lord’s burial in the tomb: all three used in the Church’s worship to this day. But it is the act of prostration, not as a merely rational act that is the result of finding what one expects, but rather as coming across what one always hoped for but never expected in this way, not knowing in one’s mind whether this is it, it, and yet making that decision to bow, to prostrate, opening up one’s heart to the mystery of the God who beckons from a burning bush, who beckons from a rock in the desert, who beckons from a manger, who beckons from a cross, who beckons from a church in Norwalk to do what the Wise Men did in that moment of revelation, in that moment of brilliance and clarity that filled the whole world, to look, to know, to give, and to exclaim, My Lord and My God.
Angels and archangelsMay have gathered there,Cherubim and seraphimThronged the air;But his mother only,In her maiden bliss,Worshipped the BelovedWith a kiss.What can I give him,Poor as I am?If I were a shepherdI would bring a lamb,If I were a wise manI would do my part,Yet what I can I give Him —Give my heart.
The Magi certainly must have experienced the way everything – including time itself – had changed, as it perhaps changes also for many Catholics who experience the Epiphany deeply. As T.S. Eliot put it elsewhere in the poem of which Father Cipolla quotes a few lines:
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”
A splendid sermon. I have only one minor quibble – that early on Fr. Cipolla states that the observation of Epiphany is older than the observation of Christmas. I was under the impression that the earliest mention of Epiphany’s celebration was the fourth century, but we have mention that the Nativity of Christ was associated with the 25th of December as early as 204 A.D.*
This doesn’t show that Christians actually celebrated Christmas on this date, but it would be strange if they chose another, or even didn’t celebrate it at all. I have read elsewhere that the earliest mention of Epiphany’s celebration (all in the 4th Century as far as I know) as a feast was actually as a celebration of the Nativity, not the visit of the Magi. At any rate, the earliest mention of any commemoration of the Nativity seems to have been in the West and was associated with the 25th of December (as far as I know).
Anyway. here is another excellent piece on the Epiphany, from Mary O’Regan:
and some beautiful medieval poetry posted for the eve of Epiphany from the Clerk of Oxford (I definitely recommend following the links in this post (I particularly love the ones entitled ‘As I Lay Upon A Night’ and ‘As Do Mothers All’):
*I’ve always found this practice of re-branding BC/AD as BCE/CE especially odd, as the reference point is still the same – despite using non-Christian terminology, we are still dating everything either before or after the Birth of Christ!