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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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House blessings for Epiphany

A doorway blessed in 2012.

This coming Sunday is the feast of the Epiphany (6 January). The Western Christian tradition focuses on the visit of the magi to the child Jesus, told in Matthew’s Gospel. The Eastern tradition of focusing on the baptism of Christ and the ‘first sign’ at the wedding at Cana (John’s Gospel) has become more common in our observance, leading to a concept of the three things of Epiphany. These three things — the three gifts of the Magi, the water of baptism, and the water become wine — are symbolic unfoldings to us of the nature of who our Messiah is, as our understanding of him grows up from the mystery of incarnation into his good news for the whole world.

Blessings are a particularly important feature of Epiphany. The arrival of the magi at the house (as it is in Matthew’s Gospel) in Bethlehem has lead the church to celebrate the Epiphany as a day for the blessing of the homes of the faithful. Sometimes the blessing is achieved by the clergy visiting the houses of the parish and blessing them with holy water. However, more often water is blessed in church and taken home by members of the congregation for this purpose.

The Sunday of the octave of Epiphany is the feast of the Baptism of Christ (always a Sunday between 7 and 13 January). As an aside, it is moved to the following Monday (8 or 9 January) if Epiphany itself is moved to Sunday 7 or 8 January for pastoral reasons, i.e. no one will come on another day of the week (Epiphany is never moved to a Sunday later than 8 January). Back to blessings, the Baptism of Christ is a great time to bless holy water and use it to bless churches, congregations and anything else within splashing distance. A popular tradition is for the congregation to proceed to the nearest body of water — river, lake or sea — and bless it, often with much splashing.

Other blessed substances have been salt — to remind us to be the ‘salt of the earth’ — and incense, taken to homes to bless them.

A peculiar and most distinctive tradition from central Europe is the blessing of chalk on the feast of Epiphany. The chalk is blessed in church and taken home to inscribe the lintels of the front doors of homes: for the year 2013, the inscription would be “20 + C + M + B + 13”, with the year intervened by the the letters “CMB”, which either stand for the traditional names of the magi — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar — or for the Latin Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house’. The prayer for the blessing of the chalk is

℣ Our help is the name of the Lord
℟ who made heaven and earth.

℣ The Lord be with you
℟ and also with you.

℣ 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
all those who with it write the names of your saints,
Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar,
may receive health of body and protection of soul
for all who dwell in the homes where this chalk is used,
we make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.
℟ Amen.

When the chalk is brought home, the inscription can be written on the lintel using these words (symbols in blue are what is written to create 20 + C + M + B + 13)

The three Wise Men,
C Caspar,
M Melchior,
B and Balthasar,
followed the star of God’s Son who became human
20 two thousand
13 and thirteen years ago.
+ + May Christ bless our home
+ + and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Other great Epiphany traditions include the King Cake, a cake, for which there are many different regional recipes, in which a bean, trinket or coin is placed, the finder of which is king for the day. In my native Westcountry, the tradition of blessing the cider orchards in the wassail ceremony is associated with Old Twelfth Night, which is now stuck on 17 January. During the reading of the Gospel for Epiphany, there is a custom of all in the congregation briefly kneeling at the words “and they knelt down and paid him homage” (Matthew 2.11).

After Twelfth Night and Epiphany, as well as the churchly feast of the Baptism of Christ, various other means of marking the beginning of the working year came about, including Plough Sunday (on the Sunday after Epiphany, clashing horribly with the aforesaid) where the plough was brought into church and blessed to begin the agricultural year, and Distaff Day (or Rock Day) a playful marking the beginning of women’s work (and in some places revived as a day to celebrate handicrafts). The first Monday in January was sometimes kept as Handsel Monday, a day for the giving of small gifts, perhaps to neighbours and workmates.

Have a happy and blessed New Year and Epiphanytide.

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Meals with Jesus III: Living on the Edge

This article is the third in a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This third is on the pericope of the Gleaning in the Wheat Fields, Luke 6·1–5.

Ruth gleaning

Ruth gleaning.

It’d be wrong to think that it was a whirlwind of dinner invitations that sustained these thirteen vagabonds over their years of wandering hither and thither. Sometimes you must eat what the Lord provides and be thankful for what you can get. Sabbath prayers were over, and the thirteen were on the road again, and their sustenance was the wheat growing at the edge of the fields — plucked, rubbed between the palms of the hands and eaten raw.

The Pharisees saw them, and saw they had committed the serious sin of letting the world of work, politics, poverty and foreign occupation into the sacred time of the sabbath. “By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”

Blinded by the need to protect the sabbath from all worldly intrusion, they forgot that it should be a day for the satisfaction of good and right. For the hungry vagabonds on the road, the leftover ears of grain, left in observance to the commandments, was an answer to the sabbath prayers — no more fishers of the seas, but gleaners of what could be found, and reliant of God’s good provision each day.

“Give us today our daily bread” — each day just enough for the day, like the manna in the desert.

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The birth of Jesus according to the Qur’an

In Islam, Jesus (‘Isa عيسى) is an honoured prophet. Qur’an 19 — Suratu Maryam سورة مريم, the Chapter of Mary — begins with the story of Zechariah (Zakariyya زكريا) being promised that he and his barren wife will have a son, to be called John (Yahya يحيى), and he is struck dumb for three nights as a sign of the promise. Although Zechariah is not described as a Jewish priest, it said that he comes out of the sanctuary (mihrab محراب) after his prayer.Mary (Maryam مريم) is introduced in verse 16, where we are told nothing of her apart from that she leaves her family and goes to an ‘eastern place’ away from them. God sends an angel to her, popularly understood to be Gabriel (Jibra’il جبرائيل), although the Qur’an describes him simply as ‘Our Spirit’ (Ruhana روحنا). Mary is a virgin, and the Qur’an agrees with the Gospels that she conceived miraculously by the power of God. The child she is to bear is fortold to be a sign for humanity and a mercy from God (ayatun lin-nasi wa-rahmatun minna اية للناس ورحمة منا).When Mary went into labour she went out into a remote place, and clung to the trunk of a palm tree (an-nakhlah النخلة). The Qur’an records her as crying out in pain that she would rather had died and been forgotten at that moment, giving birth all alone. Then God, out of mercy, made a spring to bubble up beside her and urged her to shake the dates from the tree so that she could be refreshed by them. Continue reading


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Glory to God in the highest!

The angels sing to shepherds to tell them of the Messiah’s birth. Luke 2.14records the multitude of heaven’s army in Greek as:

Angels and shepherds from Cambodia

Angels and shepherds from Cambodia

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ
καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη
ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

There has been a little trickle from Jim West’s blog via clayboy about how best to translate the song. Continue reading