“And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
After the celebration of Christmas, it might be tempting to think that the cause for celebration is over. After a month of preparation for the “big day,” it becomes all too easy to slip into the “well, that was nice” mindset. To be sure, Christmas is one of the holiest days in the liturgical calendar, but our rich Catholic heritage informs us that our festivities ought not stop there. At the conclusion of Christmastide (the “Twelve Days of Christmas” spoken of in the song), we will celebrate the Epiphany.
A Greek word in origin, “epiphany” is a conjunction of epi- (meaning “upon”) and -phaino (meaning “shine” or “appear”). Epiphany, then, marks the celebration of Christ as the “Light of the World,” an aspect of the Messiah which was foretold in the prophet Isaiah: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). In his sixth homily on Matthew, St. John Chrysostom explains that this “illumination” of all the nations is hinted at by a particular sign in the Scriptures: the visitation of the Magi.
Little is known about the Magi, apart from the minimal information contained in Holy Writ. Traditionally, the Church has held that these were three scholars or “wise men” that hailed from eastern Persia, and were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Historically, they have even been esteemed as saints; according to one legend, St. Thomas the Apostle baptized them in modern-day India after Christ’s death and resurrection.
Our German Catholic forerunners in faith began celebrating the Epiphany in a particular way which has endured even to the present day: the blessing of homes with chalk. Sometime in the 16th century, faithful Catholic men began to dress up as the three Magi, travelling from house to house collecting donations. Symbolically, this represents the preparations that the Magi had to make for their long journey from the Orient to Bethlehem—and for the expensive gifts which they brought our Lord!
After proclaiming the good news, and receiving whatever the generous faithful would offer, these men would then bless the home with the initials of the Wise Men and the sign of the cross, inscribed in chalk on the doorpost. The initials C.M.B. also represent the Latin invocation Christus Mansionem Benedicat—“Christ bless this house.” After making these collections, the men would then distribute these to the poor; in such a way, they would bring the gifts of the faithful to Christ (as present in the poor). Even today in Germany, many children will dress up and take on the role of the Wise Men, singing songs as they go door to door collecting funds for the less fortunate. Though this tradition of the Magi going house-to-house is not present in American Catholicism, many faithful Catholics still take the opportunity to celebrate Epiphany with the chalking of doors.
This simple, family-oriented ritual offers a wonderful opportunity to imbue one’s home with sacramental graces, fortify it against the spiritual forces of evil, and even catechize your children! Why not make an event of it, and come up with your own charity project as a family? Many of our parishes in Eastern Oklahoma perform the blessing of chalk on the Epiphany, and we will be distributing devotional packets for your use at our St. John’s Day event tomorrow. You can either ask your local priest to perform the chalking, or bless your own home with some of the resources available on our site.
There is still plenty of reason to rejoice, and celebrating the Epiphany offers a great way to continue our tradition of faith and extend the joy of Christmastide into the New Year!
[This star of Christmas] appears not in the night, but in mid-day, while the sun is shining; and this is not within the power of a star, nay not of the moon; for the moon that so much surpasses all, when the beams of the sun appear, straightway hides herself, and vanishes away. But this by the excess of its own splendor overcame even the beams of the sun, appearing brighter than they, and in so much light shining out more illustriously.
—St. John Chrysostom,
Homily 6 on Matthew, chap. 3