Today is Epiphany Sunday, a day on which Christians celebrate the coming of the Magi (or the Kings, or the Wise Men, depending on your tradition) to visit Baby Jesus and bring him gifts.
As the story goes, there were Three Kings from "The East." (The Biblical narrative never specifies how many there were, but tradition says three.) They were astrologers who noticed the presence of a new star in the sky and headed out to find the new king that its appearance signified. SuperSam and his dad saw a planetarium show recently about the star, and he has been telling us ever since that "actually, it wasn't a star, really, it was most likely Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction."
|Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction. Photo by SuperSam.|
(Note to my friend Julia: he may end up with that space station chaplain job yet.)
Anyway, they saw the star, and they came (riding camels?) with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These have symbolic significance but seem like less-than-stellar baby gifts, if you ask me. (A friend of mine jokes that if the kings had been mothers themselves, they would have brought diapers and wipes.)
Many people exchange gifts on Epiphany as they remember the legendary gifts of the Kings. In some cultures, children are visited by the Kings, who leave them presents. It's also customary to have a Three Kings cake, with a bean or other small object representing the Baby Jesus hidden inside before baking. (The person who finds the "baby" wins a prize.) Some friends of ours host a party each year on Epiphany at which they dispose of the greens from Christmas (trees, wreaths, etc.) with a big bonfire, serve hot spiced cider, and enjoy time with friends.
Epiphany wasn't a big deal for us growing up. I think I was in high school before I learned that the Kings in the story of the Nativity didn't show up at the same time as the shepherds and everyone else, right on Christmas Night. It has been fun to learn more about the many traditions associated with this day and choose which ones we would like to incorporate into our family's celebration.
This year, we are doing a house blessing for Epiphany. This is an old custom dating back to the Middle Ages. Although today it is more familiar in some European countries than in the United States, I have seen many references to it recently. A friend of ours who is a pastor of two local congregations even posted a picture on facebook of the blessing he did at the volunteer fire department. We decided that blessing our house was a great way to start off the new year.
What's the point of blessing our house? Well, we believe that God is present in all things. As I wrote earlier this Christmas season, the holy happens right in the middle of the mundane. Our home is the center of our life together. We are blessing our home to remind ourselves that the ordinary things that happen here are ways of expressing love, serving each other, and serving God. Asking God's blessing on our home and family reminds us that we should keep Christ in the middle of all of it...the toddler tantrums, the piles of laundry, the meals we share at our table, the guests we receive, and the conversations we share. (And the sweeping, of course.) Blessing the house at Epiphany is especially appropriate. Since this feast celebrates the coming of the Light (and the star that the Kings followed to find Jesus), we ask the Light to fill our home and our hearts in the coming year so that we can share the Light with others around us.
The particular words used in a house blessing are not set in stone- you can borrow a blessing that has already been written or create your own. Traditionally, the blessing is said as you mark the lintels of your door with this inscription: 20 + C + M + B + 13. The 2013 is the year, which enfolds the initials of the traditional names of the Three Kings: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. (For a fun musical explanation about who each of these guys were, check out this song by the De Paur Singers. The video isn't great, but you can't beat the song.) The "CMB" also stands for the Latin phrase "Christus Mansionem Benedicat," which means, "Christ Bless This House."
Here is the blessing we used...we decided to combine some resources.
Leader: We ask your blessing upon this house. Fill it and each of us who live here with your light.We closed by marking the door with the sign of the cross.
(Here, someone should write the inscription above the door.)
Other family member: Christus mansionem benedicat...may Christ bless this house.
Leader: May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is Lord, forever and ever. Amen. *
All together: Christ, in our coming and in our leaving, the Door and the Keeper; for us and our dear ones, this day and every day, blessing for always. Amen. **
If this practice is new to you, you might be interested to know that it is found in many different Christian traditions. (Read: This is not just for Catholics.) It seems to be more common in the "high church" traditions, but there's no reason why any of you can't bless a house for the new year if you want. Liturgy and ancient Christian practices belong to all Christians, regardless of denomination.
As we mark our door with this inscription this year, I am thinking of God commanding his people to mark their doorposts with the Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Michael K. Marsh, an Episcopal priest in West Texas who writes at Interrupting the Silence, mentions this in his blog (which, incidentally, makes me feel great for having thought of it!). He also says:
"Chalking the door" is a way to celebrate and literally mark the occasion of the Epiphany and God’s blessing of our lives and home. With time the chalk will fade. As it does we let the meaning of the symbols written sink into the depths of our heart and be manifest in our words and actions.
Blessing a house (or anything, really) is not superstitious. We don't expect our chalk markings and spoken words to protect us from anything. Instead, it is a practice of setting our home (and our life inside it) apart for a special purpose. It's a recognition of the truth that God is already here. It is a choice to be intentional about seeking Love by inviting its presence in our daily lives. Do you have to bless your house? Of course not. We choose to bless our home this year to remind ourselves and each other that God is in our midst, that the ordinary times and activities we share are sacred, and that we should treat each other as we would treat Christ.
Here are some resources about house blessings from around the internet, several with blessings that you can use if you don't want to come up with your own words:
Epiphany House Blessing with chalk from Interrupting the Silence
Epiphany House Blessing from Catholic Icing
Blessing the Home on Epiphany from Catholic Culture
Epiphany Chalk House Blessing from Liturgy (an ecumenical resource)
Blessing of the Home and Household on Epiphany from US Conference of Catholic Bishops
Many people bless the chalk they use to write the inscription (to set it apart for this purpose) or ask their priest to do it for them. Apparently, this is more common in some communities than others. If you ask your priest to bless your chalk and he looks at you oddly, you can feel free to share this post with him.
Have you ever heard of this tradition? Do you observe it in your family? If you do, I'd love to know about other variations or ways of doing it...and if you decide to try it, please let me know how it goes!
**from Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community (p. 150, Blessing At a Door)