Saturday, 6 January 2018

‘Chalking the Doors’ – introducing
an Epiphany tradition to Askeaton

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

We introduced the Epiphany tradition of ‘Chalking the Doors’ at Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, today.

I was first introduced to this Epiphany tradition when I was visiting Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge some years ago.

The formula for this traditional rite – adapted for 2018 – is simple. We took chalk and wrote these letters and figures above the doors into the Rectory: 20 + C + M + B + 18.

The letters have two meanings. Firstly, they represent the initials of the Three Wise Men or Magi – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – who came to visit the Christ Child in his first home.

Secondly, they also abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house.’

The ‘+’ figures signify the cross, and the figures ‘20’ at the beginning and ‘18’ at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a request for Christ to bless the home that has been marked and that he may stay with those who live there throughout the entire year.

The chalking of the doors is a centuries-old practice throughout the world, though it appears to be somewhat less well-known in Ireland. But it is an easy tradition to adopt, and a good symbol of dedicating the New Year to God from the beginning, asking his blessing on our homes and on all who live, work, or visit here.

The timing for chalking the doors varies from place to place. In some places, it happens on New Year’s Day. More commonly, though, it takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

In many places, the chalking takes place after the Epiphany Eucharist or Liturgy, and it can be carried out at any church, home or dwelling. Traditionally, the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can involve simply writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water.

After many Epiphany Masses, satchels of blessed chalk, incense, and containers of Epiphany water, blessed with special blessings for Epiphany, are distributed. These are then brought home and used to perform the ritual.

Another common practice is to save a few grains of the Epiphany incense until Easter, so that it can be burned along with the Easter candle.

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton


Leader (Priest or senior member of the family): Peace be to this house.

All: And to all who dwell herein.

Leader: Let us pray.

Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfilment of your holy law, the thanksgiving to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing, the initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk: 20 + C + M + B + 18.

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 your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Another set of prayers and blessings:

Blessing the Chalk:

Priest: Our help is the name of the Lord:

All: The maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: The Lord shall watch over our going out and our coming in:

All: From this time forth for evermore.

Priest: Let us pray.

Loving God, bless this chalk which you have created, that it may be helpful to your people; and grant that through the invocation of your most Holy Name that we who use it in faith to write upon the door of our home the names of your holy ones Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, may receive health of body and protection of soul for all who dwell in or visit our home; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing the Home

Using the blessed chalk, mark the lintels of the doors as follows: 20 + C + M + B + 18, while saying:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star of God’s Son who became human two thousand and eighteen years ago. May Christ bless our home and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Then this prayer:

Visit, O blessed Lord, this home with the gladness of your presence. Bless all who live or visit here with the gift of your love; and grant that we may manifest your love to each other and to all whose lives we touch. May we grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of you; guide, comfort, and strengthen us in peace, O Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

Continuing the tradition

Traditions like the Epiphany chalking of the doors serve as outward signs of our dedication to Christ, marked by daily prayer, reading, work and in our daily lives.

Seeing the symbols over the doors can be a reminder, going in and going out on our daily routines, that our homes and all those who dwell there belong to Christ.

In time, the chalk will fade. As it does, we can think of the meaning of the symbols written sinking into the depths of our hearts and being manifest in our words and actions.

Christus mansionem benedictat.

May Christ bless the house.

Epiphany chalking at Westcott House, Cambridge, a few years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Christmas is not over until
the Magi arrive at the crib

The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Christmas festivities are almost over, the New Year’s celebrations are already past. Some of us may have returned to work, or are going back to school or college on Monday morning.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, or ‘Little Christmas.’ This day is known in many parts of Ireland as Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas.’

Some years ago, I offered my own, humorous take on the 12 Days of Christmas with this posting on Facebook:

12 Bishops’ Appeal envelopes;
11 primates meeting;
10 lay electors;
9 lady chapels;
8 deacons waiting;
7 synods singing;
6 deans-a-praying;
5 arch-dea-cons;
4 collared revs;
3 French hymns;
2 purple stoles;
and a parson in a vestry.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is the day, traditionally, that the Christmas decorations come down. But over the next few weeks, the Epiphany readings in the Lectionary remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas or Nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

The three principle Epiphany themes in the Gospels are:

• The Adoration of the Magi (today’s Gospel reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2018, Matthew 2: 1-12);
• The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, tomorrow’s reading, 7 January 2018, Mark 1: 1-11);
• The miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-11).

But, while we are moving from Christmas to Epiphany, which ends at the Feast of the Presentation on Candlemas on 2 February, the Epiphany season is truly a continuation of the Christmas season, the liturgical colour remains white, and together Christmas and Epiphany form one full, continuous season of 40 days.

The visit of the Magi is a symbolic presentation of God’s revelation in Christ to the Gentiles. It inspired one of the great poems by TS Eliot.

This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but was not published until 1930 in his Ariel Poems.

In some ways, this poem recalls ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), but also shows some influences of the earlier ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats.

However, unlike Yeats, Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 ‘Nativity Sermon’ of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester, who first summarised Anglicanism in the dictum ‘One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.’

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. He chooses an elderly speaker who is world-weary, reflective and sad. This narrator is a witness to momentous historical change who seeks to rise above that historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings. The speaker is agitated, his revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress, and he speaks to us, the readers, directly.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that ‘this was all folly.’

The poem picks up Eliot’s persistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of his journey, the surviving magus complains about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. He says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that ‘this was all folly.’ The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?

The birth of Christ was the death of the old religions. Now in his old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.

On their journey, the Magi see ‘three trees against a low sky’ – a vision of the future Crucifixion on Calvary. The Incarnation points to the Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The ‘running stream’ may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is also an Epiphany moment.

The ‘six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver’ recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, another Epiphany theme.

The early morning descent into a ‘temperate valley’ evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death?

He is a witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment?

With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings?

Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

TS Eliot was the greatest Anglican poet of the 20th century. In this poem, he links Christmas, Epiphany and the Easter story, links beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings, and so makes sense and meaning of the Christmas story at the beginning of this New Year:

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/ Lichfield Gazette)

This posting includes some ideas in a sermon preached at the Parish Eucharist in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on Sunday 4 January 2015.