(Note: The Church's Scripture readings for the Feast of the Epiphany are identical each year. Accordingly, this week's post includes a link to the readings and the meditations first offered at this time in 2011. I hope you'll review them as well as the comments that follow. May God bless you all during the coming year. – Todd von Kampen)
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The year 2013 is a rare one in which the Church's observed Solemnity of the Epiphany falls on the same day, Jan. 6, on which the Catholic Church for many centuries had observed the visit of the three Magi (“Wise Men”) to the child Jesus.
In the years since Vatican II, the Church has permitted many of the major feasts tied to a particular date – this one included – to be celebrated on the nearest Sunday if diocesan bishops so permit. In America, that has left only the feasts of Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1), the Assumption of Mary (Aug. 15), All Saints Day (Nov. 1), the Immaculate Conception of Mary (Dec. 8) and, of course, Christmas (Dec. 25) as “holy days of obligation” on which all U.S. Catholics are expected to attend Mass regardless of the day of the week on which it falls. (A handful of U.S. dioceses – including the author's resident diocese, the Archdiocese of Omaha – also retain Ascension Day as a holy day of obligation in its historic Thursday slot 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost.)
This “Sunday transfer” option might well remind American Catholics of their civil government's “Monday holiday law” of 1971, which moved most longtime date-specific federal holidays to specific Mondays on the calendar. It's why the last two generations of Americans have grown up without celebrating Lincoln's Birthday on Feb. 12, Washington's Birthday on Feb. 22, Memorial Day on May 30 (the original date of the post-Civil War “Decoration Day”) and Columbus Day on Oct. 12. (The law also had moved Veterans Day from Nov. 11 – the “Armistice Day” of World War I – to the fourth Monday in October, but Congress moved it back in 1978.)
To what degree does it matter when we celebrate particular civic holidays or sacred feasts? In the end, it probably depends on the linkage between the celebration's date and the historical event that it commemorates. (Can anyone imagine moving Independence Day to the first Monday of July?) In the traditional Christian liturgical calendar, the date of Easter – so closely linked to the Jewish Passover – drives all the feasts between Lent and Pentecost; however, neither Christmas, Advent nor the other feasts linked to our Lord's early life are based on any historical knowledge of when Jesus was born.
In the end, the date of Christmas was chosen to facilitate the Church's remembrance of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ year in and year out. The same is true of Epiphany – a feast that Christians should treasure as the first occasion in which Gentiles recognized the “King of the Jews” as their King as well.
The feast's name itself refers to “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” Who, then, actually had this “Epiphany”? One surely must think of Mary and Joseph. The angels had told them that the Virgin's first-born Son would be “great,” “the Son of the Most High,” “the Son of God,” the eternal royal successor of David, even one who would “save His people from their sins.” But the appearance of these three important foreigners – most likely astronomers from present-day Iraq or Iran – was the first outward indication that the Kingdom of God stretched beyond the spiritual or physical borders of Israel to cover the entire world.
It matters little, in this case, whether Epiphany is celebrated on the traditional “12th day of Christmas” or on the second Sunday after Christmas. As you hear the story of the Magi this weekend, the Church encourages us to recall that the promise of the Messiah never was confined to one particular nation of humanity. Israel, as a microcosm of humanity in all its virtues and failings, played its role in salvation history – and a most necessary role it was. But the Magi knew that the child before whom they bowed was not merely the “King of the Jews” but their eternal King. Let us, too, bow down in worship!
(Please follow this link to review the Scripture readings: Meditations on Scriptures -- Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 1-2, 2011)