Epiphany and the Mother of God

Because of some peculiarities of the liturgical calendar, we celebrate the solemn feasts of Mary, Mother of God, and the Epiphany of Our Lord in the same weekend back-to-back. Many mysteries related to those feasts to reflect on in a short amount of time – much of it beautifully depicted in the scene here.

One of the things I like about this slightly unusual artwork of the Epiphany scene is that the artist is clearly making parallels to the liturgy (the Holy Mass). That dovetails with something I frequently stress: our whole faith revolves around the Holy Mass, which integrates all life and all holiness into itself. In a parallel to the entrance procession of the Mass, The three magi are depicted almost as if they are in procession coming to the Lord. One of the kings is bowing down before the Lord I adoration, with his hands folded in prayer. We see his crown cast aside to the floor, symbolizing that his own kingship is as nothing compared to Jesus the Christ, the newborn King of Kings. This is paralleled in the entrance procession as well, as the priest celebrant and ministers genuflect to the tabernacle at the beginning of Mass, making a brief act of adoration to the King of Kings who dwells therein. Similarly, the moment that the bread offered becomes the Body of Christ and the wine His Blood at the consecration, the priest celebrant briefly genuflects in adoration. In the old Mass, the priest doffed his biretta (liturgical hat) as he approached the presence of Christ (and whenever the name of Jesus is mentioned) for much the same reason that the king takes off his crown.

This gesture of adoration is more biblically accurate than many of the Christmas cards we see with the three kings standing in front of the crib. St. Matthew’s gospel notes: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy, and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother and they fell down [prostrated themselves] and worshipped him. Then opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense, and myrrh.”

Also interesting in this painting is that the gift of frankincense is shown burning. (Most Christmas card images have it still in its treasure case). Again, this is closely parallel to the celebration of the Holy Mass where the priest celebrant incenses the gifts on the altar. Why? The burning of incense was typically used in the biblical world when making a holocaust (a burnt offering to God, where what was offered was completely consumed by fire). The magi here are foreshadowing what will happen to the Newborn King: He will grow to manhood and offer his own life in atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. In solemn Masses the priest too uses the sign of burning incense as a reminder of the invisible – but real – participation in the saving sacrifice at the altar that draws us into the sacrifice at Calvary, made present in our lives.

The artist’s attention to detail is remarkable. The heads of the saintly magi are surrounded by halos, as is St. Joseph’s, who silently stands guard over the Blessed Virgin and the Redeemer of the world, entrusted to His protection. But Mary’s halo is encrusted with rubies, to show that she is most holy and blessed among all the saints. The more prominent halo of Our Lord is marked with the customary three-fold bars, to show that where Christ is present, so is the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

The Blessed Virgin, even in her poverty, sits serenely and regally as if on a throne. She peacefully takes in the scene but keeps her focus as always on Jesus Christ her Son, Whom she holds out to the visitors from the East for adoration. So too in the Mass, she is always present, who gave Christ the Body and Blood that we adore and receive into ourselves, opening the treasures of our heart and laying them before the feet of Christ as we are blessed to participate in Holy Communion.

Scholars don’t know how old the Lord was when the magi visited Him. Here, He is depicted not as an infant but a child, already self-aware enough to know that He is offering His blessing to the magi who made such great efforts to find Him. His white swaddling clothes bear a resemblance to a burial shroud, and that is no accident. Even in this joyful scene of the birth of the Savior being made known to the world, we are reminded of why Christ came and the sorrow to come. Christ came to die a truly die a humiliating death for us, to be buried, and rise from the grave so that His faithful ones could rise again into His heavenly Kingdom.

May we be truly grateful for these mysteries – wrapped into the mystery of every holy Mass – as we contemplate Mary as Mother of God and the showring forth of her Son.

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