Saturday, January 3, 2015

We Three Kings

We put the Three Kings in the parish nativity scene after Mass this morning. Of course, today is only the 10th Day of Christmas. But, in the curious liturgical calendar now officially in use in the United States, instead of arriving the morning after "Twelfth Night," the Magi must make it to Bethlehem a little earlier this year - on the morning after what I guess would have to be called "Tenth Night"! 

More important than the date of their arrival, of course, is the fact of the Magi's coming to Bethlehem - their enormous significance as the first representatives of the Gentile nations of the world - which is why Epiphany is so much more important than the post-Christmas vestigial afterthought that it seems to have become in the U.S.  

The Three Kings clearly rank among the Christmas story's most attractive figures.  Hence their survival in so many popular customs - especially in those countries where they - rather than Santa Claus - remain the primary gift-givers. As for the custom of waiting until today to put them into the nativity scene, I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, it seems curious to put all sorts of other figures in the scene so much earlier and then leave them all there, while the Magi have to wait until their literal arrival date. In the U.S., where the creche is rarely kept up until February 2 as it is in Europe, that means the kings are actually only visible for a very short time, which - given their significance - seems a shame. On the other hand, the tradition of their delayed arrival is very popular. A recently published biography of Pope Francis (Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Popehighlights his devotion to popular religion as an antidote to certain more elitist theological trends that have become influential in the Church in the last 50 years.

Indeed, the widespread survival of nativity scenes in churches despite the rationalistic "stripping of the altars" we have suffered through these past 50 or so years is itself a tribute to the power of popular religion. Perhaps it helped that, despite such popular customs as the priest putting the bambino in the manger at the Midnight Mass, the creche itself is not, strictly speaking, liturgical at all, and is not mentioned in the liturgical books (except the modern Book of Blessings, which provides a modern blessing for it, while at the same time trying to sideline it somewhat in terms of its location in the church.)

Less lucky in terms of survival - precisely, I suppose, because it was an actual part of the liturgy - was the Epiphany genuflection. There were a number of such genuflections in the old rite - whenever Philippians 2:5-11 was read, for example, or Psalm 79:8, or most famously of all, the genuflection that always accompanied the daily reading of John 1:14 and also the et incarnatus in the Creed. It was in that spirit that the rubric hic genuflectitur accompanied the reading of Matthew 2:11. The traditional liturgy wanted us to identify fully with the Magi and so invited us physically to join them in worshipping the Christ Child in an embodied way. The suppression of the genuflection was one of many such gratuitous liturgical losses. It is truly a loss, unlikely ever to be recovered. But at least we still have the creche itself, in most arrangements of which one or more of the Three Kings still do get to kneel and still what we don't get to do anymore, vicariously adoring on our behalf.

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