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Commentary on the Season and the Collect
The Rev. Dr. Peter Toon

The Feast of the EPIPHANY, the twelfth day after Christmas, begins the season of EPIPHANY, which continues in the Church Year to the beginning of Lent. The Book of Common Prayer (1928) makes provision for up to six Sundays in Epiphany, depending on the date of Easter.

If we think that the Feast (or even the season) of the Epiphany is only about the visit of the (three) kings or magi or wise men "from the east" then we only partially appreciate it! There is much more to it.

The word EPIPHANY is Greek and means MANIFESTATION or APPEARANCE. It is a Greek name because the Festival was in origin, and for its first period of celebration, an Eastern Mediterranean Christian feast, not a Roman one. Originally the Greek-speaking Church celebrated both the Birth of Christ and the Manifestation on one and the same day, January 6th, while the Latin-speaking Church celebrated Christmas on December 25.

From the early fifth century, both East and West celebrated both Christmas Day (Dec 25) and the Epiphany (Jan 6) but with different emphases. The West celebrated the Nativity on December 25th and the Manifestation to the Gentiles on January 6. Possibly the focusing of the feast in the West of the Manifestation particularly on the visit of the magi/kings is related to the moving of their relics from Constantinople to Milan in the fourth century, when Milan was capital of the western half of the Roman Empire.

Related to the Epiphany/Manifestation of the Son of God incarnate to the Gentiles are two other central Manifestations of God observed at this time - very particularly so in the East on the feast day, Jan 6, but also in the West during the season of Epiphany.

These other two are (a) the Manifestation of the Holy Trinity at the Baptism of Jesus when the Father speaks to the Son and the Spirit from the Father descends upon the Son (Mark 1:1-11), and (b) the Manifestation of Jesus as the One Person made known in two Natures when he performed the "sign" at Cana of Galilee - the miracle of water into wine (John 2:1-11). (For the use of these two Events in the West see the Gospels for Epiphany 2 & 3 in the 1928 BCP.)

If we put these three Manifestations together we have in its primary, biblical, narrative form what was achieved dogmatically by the first four Ecumenical Councils of the Church up to AD 451. That is, the setting forth by Gentile Christian bishops the dogma of the One, Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity and of the One Person of Christ Jesus made know in two natures, divine and human.

Returning to the Western celebration of the Epiphany feast proper on January 6, it is an old tradition that states that there were three visitors (because three gifts) and that they were kings. In fact prophecy encouraged the idea that they were kings, "The Gentiles shall come to thy light and kings to the brightness of thy rising" (Psalm 72:10 & Isaiah 60:3). That the new king should be born in Canaan was seen in the prophecy of Balaam (Num. 24:17) and so the magi took the main road from Persia to Jerusalem, and from there to Bethlehem in particular, because of the clear prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in the city of David.

The Manifestation to mankind by Jesus Christ & the Holy Trinity has for its ultimate purpose the deification of man through salvation, sanctification and glorification. Thus the Collect for the Feast in the BCP itself prays that "we may have the fruition (= enjoyment) of thy glorious Godhead" - the beatific vision, the seeing of the glory of the Father in the face of the Incarnate Son.

O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This Collect in its original Latin wording is based upon (a) the biblical narrative of the visit of the magi as recorded in Matthew 2; and (b) the thought that "we walk by faith and not by sight" on earth ( 2 Corinthians 5:7).

The translation provided in the BCP of 1549 and thereafter, however, does not bring out as clearly as possible, the second of these themes, the walking by faith now towards the future contemplation by sight in heaven. The petition in Latin may be more literally translated: "Mercifully grant that we, which know thee now by faith, may be led onwards until we come to gaze upon thy Exaltation [Majesty] by sight..."

It seems that in 1549 Archbishop Cranmer had in mind the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and others, who had written of the beatific vision in heaven as "the fruition of thy glorious Godhead." So he used this expression rather than literally translating the Latin before him. The translation provided above points to the same glorious conclusion as Augustine & Cranmer had in mind, but it picks up more clearly on the theme of "being led onwards" (in the case of the magi by a star and of ourselves by faith) and of "contemplation/gazing" (the magi gazed at the heavens and then upon the Only-Begotten Son Incarnate, while we shall see the glory of the Father in the face of the exalted Jesus Christ).

What this Collect actually prays for in Latin or in English is of course the important thing. The people of God make petition for divine assistance so that, after being faithful sojourners and pilgrims here on earth in this evil age, they will experience the full realization of Christian hope and see the Glory of the Father in the face of Jesus Christ in the glorious age to come. But we must first walk by faith in order later by grace to walk by sight! This is a message for the whole of the season of the Epiphany.