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Friday is the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, when we remember the coming of the magi to see the infant Christ. Our celebration of this feast is very ancient, in fact more ancient than the celebration of the nativity itself, and a large number of traditions have grown up around it.
In many churches, figures of the three magi make their way around the building (at Horbury appearing on successive window cills) during the time between Christmas and Epiphany, and reach the crib on 06 January to displace the shepherds. I think of Henry VIII who used to process to his chapel at Hampton Court in full regalia, to offer gold, frankincense and myrrh on the altar – the remnants of which tradition continue in the chapels royal today. In many countries, traditional foods are made to celebrate the arrival of the kings – galette les rois in France, for example. There is the ‘Proclamation of the Moveable Feasts’, which is a notice proclaimed to the people in the course of the Eucharist about when Lent, Easter, and the other moveable feasts occur in the year ahead, and is an old-fashioned way of people being made aware of upcoming appointments for the next few months, particularly when they were expected in church! All these liturgical and cultural traditions – of which there are many more as well – show how rich the feast of the Epiphany is, and how important it has been to successive generations.
The tradition I want to focus on in this article, however, is something which you can take away with you and do for yourself at home. It is the blessing of our homes.
At Epiphany, it is traditional for the priest to bless chalk, and to give a piece of chalk to worshippers, so that they can go home and say a prayer of blessing upon their house and family for the coming year. This ancient tradition places God at the entrance of the home and places one’s family under the Lord’s protection. We see its Biblical roots in the account of the Passover in the book of Exodus where we read: ‘The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt… ‘Take some of the blood [of the lamb], and put it on… the lintel of the houses in which they eat them…. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.’ And this is why we take the blessed chalk and inscribe the blessing, as we say it, on the lintel of our front doors: just as the Israelites were protected from all harm, so our prayer is that we might be protected from all harm during the course of this year.
So what exactly do we inscribe? Firstly, the letters C, M and B, which represent the names of the magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but which also stand for the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which means ‘Christ, bless this house’. Crosses are placed in between to remind us of the cross of Jesus, and the numbers either side represent the new year, in our case, 20 and 23. And if you want to make your inscription even more fancy, it’s possible to add little crowns over the letters (for the kings) and ‘O. P. N.’ (Latin for ‘pray for us’) underneath (see image below).
I love this particular Epiphany tradition, because as we stand on the cusp of a new year, we dedicate it to God, and ask for his blessing upon us. We can do this alone, or with family – perhaps children or grandchildren, who are always really intrigued by the tradition – and visitors to our homes might well ask us what the strange letters are by our doors, providing a great opportunity for evangelism.
And so I pray that Christ may indeed bless your homes and your families as you begin 2023 with him.
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