Kneeling Where Prayer Has Been Valid: Epiphany 2021
“Behold, the Lord and Ruler is come; and the kingdom is in His hand, and power, and dominion.”
This – the text of today’s Entrance Antiphon – is not quite the introduction to the celebration of the Lord’s Epiphany that we would expect. It seems rather scary and intimidating, much different than the tender scene at Bethlehem. Indeed, this imposing text is from the prophet Malachi, who prophecies not the revelation of the Child in the manger, but that same Child’s coming in glory upon the clouds at the end of time. This is because the Epiphany is about revelation and about worship.
As I mentioned Sunday, during our first celebration of the Lord’s Epiphany this week, “Epiphany” means revelation or manifestation. The wise men figure prominently today not because of their journey, but because it is to them that the Lord reveals Himself for the first time to the nations, beyond the bounds of the Jewish people. The Epiphany of the Lord, then, is not so much about what these three kings did, but what Christ does.
The essential activity of the wise men is not their journey or even their gift-giving, but their worship of the Christchild. But even in their worship, Christ’s action takes the priority – His intention to manifest Himself through them is present long before they ever set out in pursuit of the star.
This is an incredibly instructive lesson for us because we too have journeyed here today to worship the Christchild. The Mass of the Epiphany sees the offering of the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood as being in union with the gifts of the Magi. The priest will pray over the gifts of bread and wine, “Look with favor, Lord, we pray, on these gifts of your Church, in which are offered now not gold or frankincense or myrrh, but he who by them is proclaimed, sacrificed and received, Jesus Christ.” These words anticipate the transformation of the Eucharistic elements into the very Body and Blood of the Savior, recognizing that what we offer to God the Father is God the Son Himself.
How could mere mortals do such a thing? How could the gift of men and women be the very flesh and blood of God? It can be because it is not merely the gift of men and women. It is not our gift by right to give. The Holy Mass is not the action of men and women so much as it is the action of Christ Himself. Here at Holy Mass, Christ continues manifesting Himself in another Epiphany in His worship of the Father. We are worshiping God, but only insofar as we form part of the Body of Christ, because it is really Christ who is offering Himself to the Father and inviting us to take part in His own act of worship.
As one poet wrote, “You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid.” The Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite that we celebrate today eloquently speaks to this reality that in taking part in the Sacred Liturgy we are entering into something beyond ourselves, something that is already taking place before the clergy begin to vest or the choir begins to sing. The ancient language, ancient music, complicated ceremonial – it is not merely old but rather eternal and timeless. We worship today in the same way as our ancestors in faith who gathered in the first St. John’s church in 1860 – only perhaps with a bit more solemnity.
Christ’s worship that is already taking place into which we are invited is also not merely a historical reality, but a heavenly reality. Everything taking place in the sacred liturgy should remind us that we are joining in something entirely other-wordly – we are being invited into Christ’s worship of His Father not just here on earth but even in Heaven, accompanied by the choirs of angels and saints.
So we kneel here today where prayer has been valid. “Here,” meaning not just this physical place, but the “here” of the ancient Roman Rite that has formed martyrs, missionaries, and the heroic Catholics who brought the Faith to this foreign land. “Here,” today, we kneel where their prayers have been valid, in the great communion of the saints.
But one could surely object – these are beautiful thoughts, but I don’t feel like I am really praying because I don’t understand. This is really the point. We are not, most essentially, here to understand. Understanding is good – we should strive for understanding – but it is not everything, and it is not even what is most important. Who among us, after all, really understands what it means to take part in Christ’s worship of the Father? Did the simple, uneducated people who first brought Catholicism to Goshen, Indiana understand these deep theological truths. I expect that they had all the understanding that they needed, because they knelt where prayer has been valid.
“Prayer,” the poet continues, “is more Than an order of words, the conscious occupation Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. … the communication Of the [Sacred Liturgy] is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
Christ, then, invites us, in the Holy Mass, to take part in something that is already going on – an eternal present of Calvary and the Empty Tomb. That means we need to be careful not to bring too much of our present into what is really Christ’s worship of the Father. Something of the present is good, so that the Sacred Liturgy does not become an historical reenactment. But too much of the present and the eternal recedes into a celebration of ourselves.
The traditional Roman Rite, by continuing to admit new musical compositions, celebrating recently canonized saints, and creating new liturgical feasts to speak to the reality of modern man, was able to continue growing and adapting organically as the Catholic world grew and changed. We ought to ask ourselves whether our contemporary celebrations can also maintain a harmony of the intersection of the timeless with time, or whether they have sometimes become more of a celebration of ourselves by being a celebration of the present moment rather than an invitation to participate in Christ’s worship of the Father, His Epiphany.
“By appearing in our mortal nature,” we will hear in the Preface, “He has restored us by the light of His immortal nature.” Christ’s appearance to the nations, His Epiphany, has restored all those who share the mortal nature He took on, making us able to be drawn into His worship of His Father. The glory of the Sacred Liturgy today invites us to take part in that mystery, before which we kneel where prayer has been valid.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Epiphany of the Lord, A.D. MMXXI
Image: Sandro Botticelli. Adoration of the Magi (1475).