Life & Soul

Epiphany is the day we pray to behold God’s beauty

The Adoration of the Magi, by Edward Burne-Jones

The ancient Church gave much greater importance to the feast of Epiphany than to the relative latecomer Christmas. “Epiphany” is from the Greek for a divine manifestation or revelation. There are many “epiphanies” in Scripture, such as when God spoke to Moses in the burning bush. The Latin Church’s antiphons for Vespers reflect the tradition that Epiphany was not only the day the Magi adored Christ, but also the same day years later when Christ changed water into wine at Cana, and also when He was baptised by John in the Jordan. In each mysterious event, Jesus was revealed to be more than a mere man: He is man and God.

The Epiphany Collect was in the 1962 Missale Romanum and in ancient sacramentaries.

Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum stella duce revelasti, concede propitius, ut qui iam te ex fide cognovimus, usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur. 

Stella duce is an ablative absolute, not a film star. Celsitudo, in our liturgical context, is a divine attribute, God’s transcendent glory.

The current ICEL translation: “O God, who on this day revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star, grant in your mercy, that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.”

In Latin prayers species (three syllables) often means “beauty”. It is also a technical, philosophical term about how the human intellect apprehends things. Species concerns the relationship between the thing known and our knowing power.

A species transforms the mind of the perceiver. The object we consider acts upon our knowing power. Simultaneously, the knowing power acts upon the object. Our knowing power’s active and passive aspects meet in the species and the object of our consideration is known directly, without intermediaries. Easy.

Speaking of beauty, today we pray to be brought “all the way to the beauty of the glory (species celsitudinis)” of God “which is to be contemplated”, to see God face to face, directly and immediately. In this life we know God only indirectly, by faith, our reason aided by the authority of revelation and by grace. This is Paul’s “dark glass” (1 Corinthians 13:12) through which we peer toward Him in longing.

In heaven, God’s beauty will act upon us, increase our knowledge of Him and, therefore, our love for Him for all eternity. We can, however, begin our transforming gaze now.