The Epiphany of the Lord
Today we reach the zenith of our celebration of Christmas with the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. This feast was historically more important than the Nativity or Christmas (and in many cultures today is still celebrated with much festivity – it wasn't until 1955 that Christmas ranked higher on the Church's calendar, even if Christmas has dominated this time of year in the West for a few centuries before then). Today we see Christ not only through the eyes of Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, but with the whole world in beholding the revelation of Christ in His glory. It was for this revelation that we waited anxiously in the season of Advent, when the readings and prayers of the Mass pushed us to hope for the coming of Christ in glory at the end of times.
Christmas is an intimate celebration. Christ appears to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and animals, and to no one more. It was the intimacy of this feast, in part, that gave rise to its being celebrated during the night. It is also a feast that treats primarily of the theme of redemption – Christ was made man in order to redeem us from our sins. We remember that in the Nativity, God became man so that man might become God, through the adoption that we have received in Christ as sons and daughters of God the Father.
At Christmas, Christ appeared to the Jewish people, those who received the first promises of redemption. But in the Epiphany, He appears to us, the people who were not a part of the original promise. Epiphany, then, is our feast! The Nativity is an intimate, familial revelation, celebrated in the intimacy of the night, but Epiphany is a feast for the day, in which Christ's light shines brightly on the entire world. At Epiphany we celebrate three events: The Baptism of the Lord, His first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, and the coming of the three kings. Traditionally in the West we have focused on this last event, the three kings, and this is good because their example of coming from afar to adore the Christchild is an important one for us.
The coming of the three kings was foretold by the prophet Isaiah, as we heard in the first reading: “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.” This prophecy is important because it shows that the coming of the three kings is not an insignificant accident without importance for us. Rather, this event is an important part of God's plan for the redemption of humanity, and therefore it is important for us as well.
We can find the exact importance of the three kings in the prayer over the offerings from today's Mass. This is the prayer that the priest prays after the offertory rites, after the congregation responds, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands,” etc. So I invite you to pay particular attention to this prayer today! It asks, “Look with favor, Lord, we pray, on these gifts of your Church,” which are not the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the magi, but rather He whom those gifts proclaimed as King 2,019 years ago, Jesus Christ. Our offering to God is much more important than the gifts of the three kings because our offering is God Himself, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Here we see the heart of the Holy Mass: the offering of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ to His heavenly Father. This is why the priest raises the Body and the Chalice after the consecration – not only so that we can see Them, but even more so as a gesture of the offering that we are making to God in Heaven. When the three kings came to Christ, the most important thing they did was not to give Him gifts, but to adore Him. Their gifts are symbols of the greatest gift that they give: their adoration and recognition of the Kingship of the Infant Lord. The many famous paintings of this event are always called, “The Adoration of the Magi,” and the focus is not on their gifts, but rather on their adoration. In these paintings we see the three kings kissing the feet of Jesus, a sign of their recognition of His supreme kingship.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we must imitate the three kings in adoring the Lord. This is the greatest gift that our Lord wants from us this Epiphany: our adoration. But we know that our adoration is oftentimes imperfect. When we try to pray, we usually become distracted. This is why the Lord has left us a form of adoration that does not depend only on our own efforts, but on the objectivity of the ministry of the Church: the most holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The offering of Christ in the Mass needs someone to make this offering, in imitation of Christ on the Cross. He offered Himself, and now He wants to offer Himself to us through a mediator conformed totally to Him. Thus, the priest is necessary to make this offering to God. And for this reason, we need more priests to continue this offering in the Church, and so I ask all young, Catholic men to consider: Could God be calling you to be the priest who continues this necessary offering, this necessary act of adoration in the Church?
It is also important that our adoration of God, our offering to Him, happens in the context of a community, in union with the Church throughout the world, in union with the Pope and with the Bishop. The three kings did not go to Christ alone! In addition to being with each other, they would have had a large retinue of camels and assistants to help them in the journey. It would have been a dangerous journey to make – there were no interstates or airlines in those days, and no State Police to keep the roads safe. So they needed companions for the journey, because there is safety in numbers. We too have a dangerous journey towards Christ in our modern world. We face so many temptations and social pressure from the world not to follow the Lord or not to follow His commandments, pressure not to offer the adoration of a holy and pure life as He desires. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ to support us, and this need ought also to be reflected in the way that we adore the Lord. In the Holy Mass, the whole communion of saints is present: the Church militant here on earth, the Church suffering in purgatory, and the Church triumphant in Heaven. We all together adore the Lord at Holy Mass.
This explains so much about the way in which we worship at Holy Mass. This is not merely a community gathering, but a sacred, sacrificial banquet. In Holy Mass, not only do we adore the Lord, but we join the angels in their heavenly worship. When we come to Holy Mass, we enter into something that is already happening in Heaven. Thus, at the end of the preface prayer, before we sing the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), we hear that we join our voices with all of the heavenly host as we proclaim, “Holy, Holy, Holy, etc.”
The fact that Holy Mass is about entering into the adoration of God that is already going on in Heaven and has occurred for centuries in the Church informs how we celebrate Holy Mass. For example, when we choose music for Holy Mass, the most important question is not, “What music would you or I like to sing?” but, “What music best approximates the other-worldly adoration of the angels in Heaven?” This is why we use mysterious things in our adoration of God during Holy Mass: Gregorian chant, Latin, incense, bells, etc. Of course, there is still a place for singing hymns that are near and dear to us (either in our country, in a particular culture, or in our particular parish), and maintaining other legitimate local traditions. But our primary concern ought not to be about what is going to meet the emotional needs of people here and now (what is going to make us feel like we have worshiped God or been engaged or gratified by the Sacred Liturgy), but how we can give the best adoration possible to God by imitating here on earth the Heavenly Liturgy of the saints and angels, who adore God through the light of glory in Heaven.
There is another important implication of the fact that Mass is about entering the heavenly worship of God. This means that attendance at Holy Mass can never be replaced by any other sort of spiritual activity. Our attendance each and every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation is the most important adoration that God wants from us, and this is why we have the grave obligation to attend Mass on these days under pain of mortal sin. Without adoring Christ, who are we? What do we have in life? Only that which is empty and without meaning, unless it is directed to worship of the Most High God. This obligation also exists because our adoration of God does not end in itself, but rather, it leads us to the fruit of this adoration: our reception of the Most Holy Eucharist. Without receiving the same Body and Blood of the Lord that is offered to God the Father in the Mass, we will not have the strength to continue adoring God in all the other aspects of our life, in imitation of the three kings.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there is nothing more important in your life than adoring God. Come frequently – each and every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation – to His most holy sacrifice of the Mass to adore Him and join your life to His most holy sacrifice on the Cross.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Epiphany of the Lord, A.D. MMXX