At one time in the liturgical life of the Church, Epiphany, like Christmas, was celebrated for a whole week (actually for an ‘octave,’ or eight days). This longer celebration was suppressed many years ago leaving us with Epiphany day only. In the Tridentine breviary (the priests’ daily prayer book) however there is still in the days following Epiphany a remnant of prayers and antiphons which refer to the magi, their three gifts, the star, and King Herod. I find it profitable to have this lingering remnant of the Epiphany octave since there are many things in that event to think about, things that would otherwise not get adequate time for reflection.
One of these concerns the more subtle meanings of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I’m thinking particularly here of the reference to sacrifice which is hidden in them. We often call them the magi’s gifts, but we ought to think of them better as sacrificial offerings. Sacrifice is something having a double aspect. There’s a part that one can see and touch (the material aspect of the sacrifice) and there’s the interior part, the intention of the one making the sacrifice. This latter aspect, though not often given due prominence, is actually the more important of the two. An example. If one were to offer to God some of his money to help the poor (alms) in compensation for his sins, the more important value in that act would not be the dollar value of the offering but the intention for which the offering was made. From this one can see that a material thing offered can have supernatural value, that is, a value far exceeding its material worth. (How different, for example, would be an alms given out of religious reasons from a government handout!)
The centrality of sacrifice has been vanishing from Catholic consciousness. This is a result, I believe, of having lost sight of the Mass as sacrifice. At one time Catholics were commonly aware that at Mass they were participating in the renewal of the Calvary’s sacrifice. Mass was then indeed a serious, if joyful, act. This aspect of the Mass has now been ignored for a rather nebulous ‘celebrating.’ This tendency evacuates the Mass of its essential and necessary meaning and leaves the participants bored. [Emphasis here mine -- PP]
Here’s the significant point. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross (renewed at every Mass) already had joined to it other, lesser sacrifices of the Church to come. We can perhaps see this in the role of Holy Mary at the cross. There She co-offered herself along with Her Son’s offering of Himself. IN a like manner, the magi’s gifts had a sacrificial meaning in view of Christ’s future crucifixion. These were given the Infant Christ in anticipation of Calvary, finding their significance in an event yet to come, just as the sacrifices of ourselves today with Christ at Mass are the continuation of His sacrifice.
If I were to search for words that are the opposite of sacrifice, they might be covetousness or selfishness, or self-esteem–things antithetical to true religion but which are much lauded by the world. As a result we’re become ego-centric rather than self-giving Christians. Holy Mary is, of course, the unparalleled model here of what we must do–She who kept nothing for Herself, desired nothing for Herself but who offered all to God.
Original sin did us a great deal of harm in many ways, but particularly in giving us a natural bent to self love. The practice of religion is supposed to help curb that tendency and make us selfless and generous towards God and neighbor. We’re forgetting this because of the sins which feed our egos. The magi teach us to be joyful givers not self-centered keepers.
When you come to Mass you should join yourself internally to Christ who is offered at Mass. Then your presence and participation in the liturgy will be meaningful indeed. You will have put in your portion as Mary once gave (and still gives) Hers, and as the magi once put theirs before the Lord through their gifts. Epiphany thus reminds me to be a sacrificing person at Mass and in many other ways outside Mass....
Sunday, January 11, 2015
The magi's gifts as sacrifice ... and the Sacrifice of the Mass
Fr. Eduard Perrone, "A Pastor's Descant" [temporary link] (Assumption Grotto News, January 11, 2014):