Many Christians take down their Christmas trees shortly after Christmas Eve. As their trees are awaiting pickup at the curb, others are still celebrating “Christmastide,” a season that stretches from the celebration of Jesus’s birth at Christmas on December 25th through to the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th.
A celebration of God unveiled
Epiphany is a celebration of Jesus Christ made manifest. For Christian traditions rooted in Western Christianity, Epiphany falls on January 6th. Among other key moments where Jesus is revealed in glory, Epiphany celebrates the visit of the wise men or Magi to the baby Jesus. It’s a tradition almost as old as celebrating Christmas, with roots going back at least to the fourth century. In fact, in some ancient Christian groups, January 6 celebrated the birth of Christ as well.
Christmas is the holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus, but Epiphany is the celebration of Jesus being revealed and made known. Our charming Christmas Nativity scenes (another old tradition, coming from Saint Francis of Assisi and his love of the baby Jesus) like to group everything together. The shepherds and the wise men, brought together to worship Jesus in the humble stable, Joseph and Mary looking on. Of course, the elements of the story occurred separately rather than simultaneously. Though the shepherds of the Gospel of Luke meet an infant in a stable, the Magi of Matthew’s Gospel meet a child in a house (cf. Matt. 2:11). There’s value to following the narrative and celebrating the distinctive nature of these events.
In celebrating the visit of the Magi, we are reminded that Jesus comes for us too. Epiphany brings Christmas to the world. On Epiphany, in Catholic parishes around the world, the great prophecies of Isaiah 60:1-6 are read before the story of the Magi. Isaiah foretells a time when the glory of the Lord appears in Israel and nations and kings of the world are drawn to the light. The Magi are the first fruits of that prophecy. Saint Bonaventure, a medieval Christian monk, encourages us to see ourselves as following in the footsteps of the Magi: “In company with the first fruits of the Gentiles to be called to faith, adore, confess and praise this humble God who lies in a crib; and thus, warned in a dream not to imitate Herod’s pride, return to your land in the footsteps of the humble Christ.” This is the moment that Jesus is unveiled to the world and we are invited into the previously exclusively Jewish story.
Of course, the visit of the Magi is not the only point at which Jesus is revealed for who he is. Epiphany celebrates all those moments, including his Baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana where Jesus began his public ministry. Like the visit of the Magi, these events are a revelation. His Baptism is a public revelation of Jesus’s identity; “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). In fact, in Eastern Orthodox circles, Epiphany’s focus is celebrating Jesus’s baptism. The wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs his first miracle, is another moment where Jesus’s identity is revealed. Epiphany knits all these events into a celebration of the fact that God chose to reveal himself to us.
Chalking the Door
There are many Epiphany traditions. In many European countries, like Finland and Italy, it is a public holiday. In France and Spain, there is a tradition of preparing and eating a special King’s Cake. In Germany, some children dress as kings and carol as “Star Singers” at doors.
One popular tradition in other countries is taking the time to pray over and bless your home. The practice focuses on praying over the house (with the exact prayers and structure varying by Christian liturgy) and writing the year broken by the initials of the Magi on the door of the house in chalk. The practice is common enough that one can find both Protestant and Catholic liturgies, designed to be done at home.
Generally, the liturgy opens with prayer and reflecting on the Gospel story of the Magi. Then, chalk is used to write an acronym representing the current year and names of the Magi on the door. Tradition has numbered the Magi three, after the three gifts presented to the Christ child, and given them the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. For this year, the finished product would look like this:
20 🕇 C 🕇 M 🕇 B 🕇 21
The initials of the Magi – CMB – do double duty as an acronym for Christus mansionem benedicat, or “Christ, bless this house.” It’s a beautiful way to transition from the joy of the incarnation of Jesus at Christmas to acknowledging the impact of that incarnation in Jesus’s lordship over our homes and lives.
This year, you have the opportunity to remind the world of the importance of Christmas. Chalking your door is one way to declare that the impact of the Christmas season continues in your home, but you can also come up with your own family traditions that will help you to reflect on and imitate the Magi, those first non-Jews to kneel before the King of the Universe.
Places of Welcome. An Epiphany prayer, the authors write, is not just for houses; it “may be used to bless a room in a hospital, nursing home or extended-care facility; to inaugurate the spring semester in a college dormitory room; to set aside a Bible study meeting place, and so on.”
After reading the Magi’s story, one Epiphany liturgy ends with this prayer:
“May this home in the coming year be a place where Christ is pleased to dwell. May all our homes share the peace and hospitality of Christ which is revealed in the fragile flesh of an infant. Amen.”
– From “Distinctive Traditions of Epiphany” by Amber and John Inscore Essick.