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Joseph Ratzinger

Epiphany in Benedict XVI’s Theology of Divine Revelation

January 9, 2023


Yesterday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. The history of this solemn feast is both ancient and complex. In various times and places, January 6 (the traditional date of the Epiphany) was associated with a variety of events in Jesus’ life: his birth, his baptism, and the adoration of the Magi (the three wise men), among others.

Epiphany scene

Each of these events in some way relates to the term “epiphany,” which comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance.” In its etymology, the word had broad applications, but the most relevant connotation for this feast is that of a theophany (a manifestation of divinity). Through the birth of Jesus, God appeared in the flesh, visible to the human eye for the first time. At the baptism in the Jordan, the voice of God the Father and the appearance of the Holy Spirit in a form of a dove testified to Jesus’ divine Sonship and to his status as the anointed one of God, the Messiah, the Christ. With the arrival of the Magi, who came from the East to pay homage to the infant Jesus, the three wise men behold the countenance of the one who is God become man.

In light of this feast and in light of the recent passing of beloved Pope Benedict XVI, I would like to take the opportunity to discuss a little-known treatment of the concept of epiphany in his thought. As a young scholar studying the works of St. Bonaventure, Joseph Ratzinger noted that the Latin translation of the original Greek term “epiphany” is “apparitio” (apparition). (Thus, what he says about apparition applies to epiphany as well.) He sees a distinction between “apparition” and “revelation” (Latin = “revelatio“), the latter of which translates the Greek word apocalypse (see Joseph Ratzinger, Joseph Ratzinger: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, [henceforth, JRGS 2]105). The difference is subtle but important.

In a work presenting St. Bonaventure’s understanding of divine revelation, Ratzinger defines apparition/epiphany as the “becoming visible of a sensible sign for the presence of the Divine Person sent. It is assigned to sensible knowledge, but a sense-knowledge . . . which does not remain in itself, but points beyond itself, which thus grasps its object not as something final, but understands it as a sign which points to something greater” (ibid., 101; translations are my own). In other words, an apparition or epiphany refers to the external, sensible sign of the presence of God, or more specifically, of one of the three divine persons of the Trinity.

In this vein, Ratzinger indicates that, for St. Bonaventure, Jesus’ entire historical existence is an “apparition” of God the Son. Jesus’ humanity is a tangible, sensible means of conveying the presence of God. Of course, Jesus’ divinity is more obvious in some situations than in others. For instance, the Transfiguration provided a direct view of Jesus’ glory to Peter, James, and John. Nevertheless, because Jesus is God Incarnate, the humanity of Jesus itself is a kind of epiphany. Hence, his birth and his being seen by the Magi who represent the nations of the world are appropriately understood as epiphanies.

For Ratzinger, however, external appearances—while important—are not the full story. After all, many people saw Jesus without recognizing his divinity. Thus, in addition to the external sign of the presence of God, something else is necessary to perceive the reality towards which the sensible sign points. “The humanitas,” writes Ratzinger, “is indeed accessible to the sensible gaze, but not the divinitas: it discloses itself only in the ‘revelatio’” (ibid., 105-106).

In this connection, Ratzinger speaks of revelation as “the inner complement of the apparitio, without which this meaningless fragment, as it were, would remain a word from a foreign language. Thus, the proclamation of the divine is only realized in revelation and never without it” (ibid., 101). Here, Ratzinger equates the apparition with the external, sensible appearance and revelation with an interior reality that complements the sensible sign. Revelation, in the strict sense, involves divine action within the person receiving it. There is an interior illumination that enables the person to perceive the reality behind the sense experience. Without this perception, there is no true revelation.

In its etymology, the term “revelation” indicates the removal of a veil. Whether the veil is conceived of as covering the object or as covering the eyes of the human subject, the point is that a veil stands in between the reality and the viewer and is subsequently removed, making the perception of the object possible. Thus, revelation, in a proper sense, includes the perception of the reality by the human person. As Ratzinger puts it: “The receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of “Revelation.” Where there is no one to perceive “Revelation,” no re-vel-lation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires someone who apprehends it” (Ratzinger, Milestones, 108). As divine self-communication, revelation includes those who receive the communication.

In order for revelation to be complete, according to Ratzinger (following St. Bonaventure), it must be received in faith. “To ‘revelation’ belongs the inner, faithful acceptance of what has been said. . . . Talk of real revelation can exist only where it does not remain in the external word but where it arrives at a true, inner contact with God, to an inner enlightening of the man addressed by God” [JRGS 2, 85-86].

From this perspective, Ratzinger insists that revelation cannot simply be equated with the words on the biblical page. In a manner akin to the epiphany of God the Son through his human nature, the Sacred Scriptures provide sense data that point to the reality of God who is their author. But without the interior illumination accompanying the reading or hearing of the Word and without the reception of God’s Word in faith, revelation is not actually taking place. As Ratzinger insists:

For revelation always and only becomes a reality where there is faith. The unbeliever remains under the veil of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 3. He can read scripture and know what it contains. He can even understand, purely conceptually, what is meant and how its statements cohere, yet he has no share in the revelation. Revelation is in fact fully present only when, in addition to the material statements which testify to it, its own inner reality is itself operative in the form of faith. Consequently revelation to some degree includes its recipient, without whom it does not exist. Revelation cannot be pocketed like a book one carries around. It is a living reality which calls for the living man as the location of its presence.

Ratzinger, Revelation and Tradition, 36.

There is something profound in this view. God has revealed himself to us. He communicates and communes with us. To benefit from this invitation to intimacy with God, we must be properly disposed.

May we who celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord not allow our celebration to remain purely external. Let us cooperate with the gift of grace so that we can become aware of God’s presence with and for us. May Our Lord’s epiphany lead to true revelation.

And, with heartfelt sincerity, may our voices join in proclaiming the last words of Pope Benedict XVI: “Jesus, I love you!”