Anna Blackman and Fr Stephen Reilly
As the Christmas holiday draws to a close, and the festivities die down, often it can feel like a disappointment. We return back to ‘normal’, to work, or to school, albeit this year somewhat differently. As our Christmas holiday ends and we enter into the last few months of winter, it can seem quite bleak. There is no holiday to look forward to, no star to follow. However, within the Church’s liturgical calendar Christmas is very much still with us. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate the hopefulness and promise that is found within the Incarnation. This is the message of hope and light that Christmas celebrates, and it is also the message that is at the heart of the teaching mission of the Church. This is also a message that we live out and witness to in our daily lives as Christians the whole year round.
This Christmas, many of us at the St. Andrew’s Foundation have been contemplating on how we can most faithfully embody the spirit of Christmas in a way that reflects this message, rather than the secular demands of excess and consumerism. (See for example Bob and Roisin’s reflection). One important way in which we can do so is to not simply relegate Christmas to just one day of gift-exchange, or simply a holiday of indulgence. Rather, by following more closely the Church’s calendar we can understand and impart the full significance of Christmastide.
One tradition that we propose reviving, in order to promote Christmastide, is the chalking of doors on Epiphany. This tradition is one way in which the light of Christmas can be shared to others in a way that directs focus back to the crib. Originating in Central Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, the custom incorporates the blessing of chalk, which is then used to mark one’s home, usually the front door or lintel over the entrance to the house, to commemorate the visit of the Magi. Doors are marked with the initials of the Magi, as well as the new year which is being entered into, joined with a series of crosses. This reminds us not just of the new year to come, but also of how many years have passed since the Incarnation, when the Magi, guided by the light of a star, made the journey to visit Christ. This year, for example, the marking would read 20 + C + M + B +21, for the year 2021 and for the legendary names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. The initials also stand for the Latin prayer ‘Christus mansionem benedicat’, meaning ‘May Christ bless this house’. This serves both as a blessing, by marking the door of the home as the Israelite’s did in the Exodus narrative, and also as a simple form of witness to those who come to the house that Christ is incarnate in our lives here today.
Though in Scotland Epiphany fell on Sunday 3rd January, this tradition, which usually occurs on the traditional dating of the 6th, can compliment our celebrations at Mass. Chalking the doors at home and in the Catholic school would provide a welcome focus on the season of Christmastide. Due to the way that the holidays fall, emphasizing the continuance of Christmas past the end of the school holidays can be difficult, meaning that Advent is left to carry the full weight of Christmas reflection. As our Advent blogs from Roisin and Bob have articulated, this puts Christmas at the mercy of increasing secular traditions and priorities, and quite simply places it solely at a very busy time of year. Celebrating the Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord (or indeed continuing the celebration to Candlemas on 2nd February) would provide a more reflective space in the company of the most exotic and enthralling nativity characters, the Wise Men, in a tinsel free school where the crib is at the centre.
Grappling with these characters opens up a richness of teaching material. In a fascinating book chapter entitled “Epiphany, Worship and the Contemplative Body in Catholic Education”, David Torevell explores the potential of the Wise Men. Arguing that the body needs to be trained to receive the gift of faith, by posture and gesture, by fasting and feasting, in song and silence, he sees the opportunity to contemplate and imitate the figures of the Wise Men in the crib as deeply pedagogical. To see these crib figures bending, kneeling and offering gifts offers a paradigm of the life of worship, inviting children to kneel and adore, and to a humility so counter-cultural in a self-referential society. (This is Our Faith P4 also notes this connection). So too can this provide a fruitful opportunity to emphasize charitable acts, showing both the generosity of the Wise Men, and the hospitality of the Holy Family.
Torevell also notes the potent subconscious political message; these richly-dressed and learned men kneel before a baby born in poverty, subverting worldly ideas of status. In doing so they are taking their life in their hands, defying Herod by giving their homage to the one who threatens the status quo. We might also add that the traditional diversity of the Wise Men statues, remarkable in western Catholic Church which has been for so long monochrome, places a black man of wealth and learning as among the first to recognize and accept salvation. How many children saw the kneeling black king this year and thought of their favourite footballers taking a knee against racial injustice?
The chalking of the doors has been a tradition which has often been adapted to facilitate the involvement of children. Marking the door themselves is something simple, yet interactive, that children can do. Sometimes the tradition has included children forming a procession, like that of the Wise Men, towards the door to be marked. However, the intention of using this tradition extends beyond just a repeat of the Christmas story; its emphasis is to refocus our attention back to the spiritual significance of the nativity scene. This is one way in which the pedagogical focus on Christmastide, in its true crib-focused form, can be deepened; this embodiment of faith is a way of expressing the reality of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is at the heart of our faith, and its expression must necessarily be incarnational. With the marks of the Wise Men on our lintels, and with their year-long blessing, we can hope that our young people will imitate them in their humility, their bravery, and their worship.
We would love to hear from you about how you celebrate Epiphany and Christmastide. Please feel free to comment on the blog, on Twitter, or submit your own thoughts as a blog!