Monday, 6 January 2020

Chalking the doors in
Tarbert and Askeaton:
an Epiphany tradition

‘20+C+M+B+20’ … ‘Chalking the Door’ in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Co Kerry

Patrick Comerford

We continued the Epiphany tradition of ‘Chalking the Doors’ after the Epiphany Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry, yesterday [5 January 2020] and at Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and the Rectory in Askeaton after the Epiphany Eucharist today [6 January 2020].

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 Epiphany 2020 – is simple. Take chalk and write these letters and figures above the doors into the Church or the house: 20 + C + M + B + 20.

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 ‘20’ at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a request for Christ to bless the building that has been marked, church or home, and that he may stay with those who worship or 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’ … an Epiphany tradition continues at Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Co Kerry

Prayer:

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 + 20.

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 + 20, while saying:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star of God’s Son who became human two thousand and twenty 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, five years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year’

‘A cold coming we had of it’ … the visit of the Magi in a fresco in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Monday 6 January 2020

The Epiphany

11 a.m.:
The Epiphany Eucharist

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen:

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is the day, traditionally, that the Christmas decorations come down. For many, Epiphany is the ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Little Christmas’ or Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas.’

There are three principle Epiphany themes in the Gospels:

● The Adoration of the Magi (this year’s Gospel reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2020, Matthew 2: 1-12)

● The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, next Sunday’s reading, 12 January 2020, Matthew 3: 13-17)

● the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-11), which we read about in this season last year (Epiphany II, 20 January 2019).

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. This visit is a popular image for Christmas cards, but very often we have taken down the Christmas cards by the Feast of the Epiphany, and so we are left without a visual reminder of what they represent.

Many years, ago, instead of preaching on this morning’s story in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, I read TS Eliot’s poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi.’

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.

Eliot wrote this poem after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but it 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 an earlier poet by WB Yeats, ‘The Magi.’

However, unlike that poem by Yeats, Eliot’s poem 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.

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of the 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, but 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?

The Journey of the Magi – 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.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Adoration of the Magi … a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

Hymns:

202, What child is this, who laid to rest (CD 13)
201, We three kings of Orient are (CD 13)
189, As with gladness men of old (CD 12)

The Adoration of the Magi, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591, in the Museum of Christian Art in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The Visit of the Magi in the 13th century Church of the Holy Cross or ‘Martyrium’ in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church in Mungret
was built to cater for
Limerick’s growing suburbs

The Church of Saint Oliver Plunkett in Mungret, Co Limerick … designed by the Limerick architects John and Nuala Kernan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The new, modern Roman Catholic parish church in Mungret village, on the outskirts of Limerick City, is in sharp contrast to the nearby ruins of the monastic churches and buildings from the monastery founded by Saint Nessan in the sixth century, and the ruins of the former Church of Ireland parish church.

At one time, it is said, the monastery at Mungret had at least six functioning church. But the present parish church, dedicated to Saint Oliver Plunkett, is the newest church in Mungret.

In the Roman Catholic Diocese of Limerick, Mungret, Crecora and Raheen form one parish, which is an interesting mixture of urban, suburban and rural life.

Inside the Church of Saint Oliver Plunkett in Mungret (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

At one time, this was very much a rural area, but suburban Limerick expanded rapidly from the 1960s on. The parish grouping stretches from the banks of the River Shannon, near Mungret to beyond the southern edge of the N20 road and reaches out into the Golden Vale in the direction of Adare, Cork and Kerry.

The parish church in Mungret was built in 1981 to cater for the population growing up around Mungret village. The church was dedicated to Saint Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681), the martyred 17th century Archbishop of Armagh.

A stained-glass window in the church depicts Saint Oliver Plunkett (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The parish website describes him as ‘a victim of the Cromwellian persecution in the 17th century.’

In fact, Oliver Plunkett was in Rome throughout the Cromwellian period (1649-1658). He was sent to Rome by his family in 1647 to study at the Irish College, and was ordained priest there in 1654. He remained in Rome as the representative of the Irish bishops throughout the period of the Commonwealth period and during the first decade of the reign of Charles II.

He was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh in Ghent on 30 November 1669, and eventually arrived back in Ireland on 7 March 1670, and was based in Drogheda for most of the nine years that followed.

The reliquary of Saint Oliver Plunkett in Mungret (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

He was arrested in Dublin in December 1679, jailed in Dublin Castle, and put on trial in Dundalk. When the trial collapsed, he was moved to Newgate Prison in London, tried at Westminster Hall in the wake of the Titus Oates plot, and was convicted of high treason in June 1681. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681; he was 55 and the last Catholic martyr to die in England.

He was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, becoming the first new Irish saint for almost 700 years.

His canonisation gave new popularity to the martyred archbishop, and when the new church opened in Mungret in 1981 it was dedicated to Saint Oliver Plunkett.

The church is square shaped with a mansard-style roof (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church was designed by the Limerick architects John and Nuala Kernan. Their whose other churches in the area include the Church of Christ the King in Caherdavin.

The church was opened by Bishop Jeremiah Newman and Father Eamon Dillane, PP on 20 September 1981.

The church is square-shaped and has a large, dark, mansard-style roof and low white walls with irregularly placed and varied windows, including a stained-glass window on the right-hand side depicting Saint Oliver Plunkett.

Other windows depict the Holy Spirit, the Lamb of God and the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist.

A window depicting the Holy Spirit (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

There is shrine and a reliquary containing a relic of Saint Oliver Plunkett close to the stained-glass window with his image.

The church was designed so it could be extended if the growth in population made this necessary.

The architects John and Nuala Kernan were present at the launch of Dr Liam Irwin’s book, The Diocese of Limerick: an illustrated history, published in 2013. John Kernan died in 2016.

The Main Street in Mungret, Co Limerick … the village is fast becoming a suburb of Limerick City (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)