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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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Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us

The Holy House, Walsingham

The Holy House, Walsingham

I’ve just returned from pilgrimage to the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. It was my first visit, and I wasn’t sure how it would be, but am glad to say it was entirely positive.

I first had opportunity to go to Walsingham while at theological college in St Michael’s College, Llandaff. The organisers were a couple of fellow students of the all-too-common pompous and precious branch of Anglo-Catholicism, rank and file Forward in Faith. I didn’t go when offered, knowing these colleagues to be theologically shallow and unpleasant to be around. And that was that: Walsingham remained in my mind associated with an exclusive and unwelcoming sect.

That was thirteen years ago. This time I went to Walsingham with my parish: my vicar and nine parishioners. Walsingham remains a centre for Forward in Faith, a place where Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women can pilgrimage and feel at home. However, there is a substantial section of Anglican Catholics, who might also wish to be described as ‘traditionalists’, who not only fully support the ministry of women, but is led by women priests. It is important that this section of the church continue to be represented at the shrine, stopping it from becoming an exclusive gentlemen’s club.

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Meals with Jesus I: The Wrong Wedding?

This article is the first of a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This first is on the pericope of the Wedding at Cana, John 2·1–11.

Water into wine

Jesus turning water into wine. Mosaic from the exonarthex of the Chora Church (Kariye Camii), İstanbul.

Let us begin at the end!

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”

That could mean Tuesday, but it doesn’t. It means Sunday: Easter Sunday, the third day when our Lord was risen! And so we begin at the end, for the end is the beginning, a new beginning. But shouldn’t the wedding be the happy-ever-after at the end? Whose wedding is it? Even that’s the wrong way round: invitations are usually sent before the wedding feast, not after it. We’re told the name of the groom in chapter three, and, as for the bride, try the next chapter.

This wedding at Cana seems all wrong; it’s one big question mark. It’s odd how we hear of a miracle of transmutating liquids and find that easier to cope with and understand than the grand narrative that this unsettling gospel is unfolding for us.

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