Dangit, dangit, dangit! Why O Lord, why?! Of all the sections of Egeria’s Journal, our almost sole, priceless 4th century AD/CE eyewitness to the creative Christian worship arising straight out of the ground in Jerusalem under the great bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, her excursus on Jerusalemite and Bethlehemite Epiphany worship is mostly lost to us. While her writings were lost entirely to us for over 700 years, I sincerely pray this missing section is one day found intact. For more on my favorite historical travel companion, please see my devotional entries earlier this year here and here. OMG are we self-referring already?! Lord, next I’ll be talking to myself in text (which I hardly ever do thank goodness…right?!)…
Despite the unwelcome interruption of Egeria’s eyewitness Epiphany accounts, some tantalizing fragments remain. That’s our pilgrimage girl!! After the fragmentary journal describes Cyril’s night-long Epiphany pilgrimage from Bethlehem back to his episcopal seat in Jerusalem, accompanied by candle-carrying worshippers, Egeria narrates a brief coffee break for the weary congregation before re-gathering at 7 AM in Jerusalem’s Great Church, which we call the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Allow me to step aside here so you can hear the young nun’s unrestrained enthusiasm meet her piety in this moving scene:
And on this day (Epiphany) in this church, and at Bethlehem…the decorations really are too marvelous for words! All you can see is gold and silk; the hangings are entirely silk with gold stripes, the curtains the same, and everything they use for services at the festival is made of gold and jewels. You simply cannot imagine the number and the sheer weight of the candles and the tapers and lamps and everything else they use for the services. They are beyond description, and so is the magnificent building itself (The Holy Sepulchre sanctuary). It was built by Constantine, and under the supervision of his mother it was decorated with gold, mosaic and precious marble, as much as his empire could provide…The decorations and rejoicing continue for eight days in all these places I have mentioned. But in Bethlehem they go on for eight days continuously!…For this Feast Day and the celebrations great crowds come to Jerusalem from all parts, not only monks but lay men and women as well.
Our courageous, well-traveled Spanish nun is correct in every detail, with the familiar tone of the pilgrim emotionally overcome to be in Jerusalem for one of the great Christian festivals of the year. Pilgrims sound like that until this very day! The Byzantine Empire under Constantine’s veteran grip was young and extremely wealthy, able to lavish every appointment upon the new Christian basilicas he constructed to entice pilgrims to the Holy Land and thus unify a far-flung empire under the religious hegemony (I love this word also) of Christianity. Egeria describes the 4th century liturgical innovation of an octave, not a musical note here but rather an eight day festival as one day could not contain all the worship necessary to express the moment; more cynical voices note that festive octaves also encouraged pilgrims to stay longer and spend their money in a week, a resort strategy many of our local hotels still employ over major holiday rushes! But note how significant Epiphany was to our early Christian forebears……sumptuous fabrics, countless candles, continuous multi-day worship, episcopal marches back and forth from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, pilgrims flooding these sites. It sure sounds better than Netflix or Prime!
- We will hear from Egeria again in 40 days’ time, as we close out Epiphanytide. But just for a moment….try to meet her there, in 4th century Jerusalem in the mother church of all Christianity, newly constructed and gleaming with the finest craftsmanship and artisanship available anywhere to that time. Take a moment in prayerful reflection, see the scene, hear and smell the scene, listen to the chanting and the praying and the singing.
- Take another moment to reflect upon the profundity of Epiphany as a festive moment for believers everywhere. So many traditions from which to choose, from the birth and baptism of our Lord to the Magi’s visitation. Again, that provocative and alluring star comes to mind. What would it mean to follow that star with such abandonment, to worship like Egeria and her fellow pilgrims did, to pick up a family and flee to save your kids as Joseph and Mary did, to ponder all these things as Mary did?