George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Epiphany, History, and Us

One of the sadnesses of the reformed liturgical calendar is the loss of “Sundays after Epiphany,” which, with the frequent translation of the solemnity itself to a Sunday (this year, January 3), diminishes the impact of what ought to be one of the principal pivots of the liturgical year — the “real” year, for serious Christians.

If Christmas and the revelation of the Christ child to the shepherds mark the insertion of the Son of God into a human community — the Jewish people — the manifestation of the child to the gentile Magi at the Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Incarnate Word into human history. And if that stupendous event is, in truth, the pivot on which the entire human story turns, then the Solemnity of the Epiphany is, with Easter, one of the two great pivotal moments of the Church's year of grace.

That fact is nicely captured by a feature of the Roman Missal that, for some reason, only appears in a sacramentary supplement published in 1994 (which means the overwhelming majority of our parishes don't have it): the sung proclamation of the date of Easter by a priest, deacon, or cantor, immediately after the Epiphany Gospel has been read or sung. Here is what you missed this year (the translation is my own, from an Italian missal):

“Dear brethren: The glory of the Lord has been made manifest to us and will always be manifest in our midst until his return. Amidst the rhythms and turnings of time, we remember and live the mysteries of salvation. The center of the entire liturgical year is the Triduum of the crucified, buried, and risen Lord, which culminates on Easter Sunday, April 4. On every Sunday, which is the Easter of each week, the holy Church makes present this great event in which Christ conquered sin and death. From Easter stem all the other holy days: Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which is February 17; the Ascension of the Lord, which is May 13; Pentecost, which is May 23; and the First Sunday of Advent, which will be celebrated on November 28. In the feasts of the holy Mother of God, the apostles, and the saints, as well as in the commemoration of the faithful departed, the pilgrim Church on earth proclaims the Easter Passover of her Lord. To Christ who as, who is, and who will come again, the Lord of time and of history, be endless praise forever and ever. Amen.”

In an age of gnostic religion — religion detached from the stuff of this world, faith conceived as a personal lifestyle choice, worship misconstrued as a form of auto-therapy — the liturgical proclamation of the date of Easter is an important reminder that Christian faith is grounded, not in “narrative,” and certainly not in “myth,” but in history. Two millennia ago, certain things happened to the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire: things that forced men and women not-so-different from us to make decisions. On those decisions, which are themselves historical facts, the history of the world turned. Because of things that happened in history, men and women were transformed, and transformed the human story as a result.

History, Peter Kreeft neatly reminds us, is not one darn thing after another, but rather His-story: the story of a God who acts, first in creation, then in covenant and prophecy, and ultimately in the Easter Triduum. Thus it's not a matter of “world history,” here, and “salvation history,” there,” as if the drama of salvation is being played out on a track parallel to world history. No, what we call “salvation history” is world history, read at its true depth and against its most ample horizon.

On January 17, the Church will enter so-called “Ordinary Time.” It seems a singularly misbegotten moniker. There is nothing “ordinary” about any time, if we take the Epiphany seriously. When the eternal Word of God enters time, time is caught up in eternity and history is revealed as His-story, in which we have been called to participate. Nothing “ordinary” there — nothing at all.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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