Today, January 6, is the 12th day of Christmas in the traditional church calendar, the official end to Christmastide and the start of Epiphany, which lasts through to the day before Lent.
The Feast of Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi, or Three Kings, from the east who experienced the revelation, or ‘epiphany’, of the Incarnation of the Christ as the infant Jesus.
Until a century or two ago, Epiphany was actually more important than Christmas Day. In the Spanish-speaking world, for example, Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day) is when most children receive their Christmas presents. Last night, many Spanish children would have left their shoes by the door hoping to have them filled with gifts from the three kings.
Many Ukrainians broke with Orthodox tradition this year to celebrate Christmas on December 25 following Western practice. Russia, along with other Orthodox nations like Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan, continued to follow the older and less accurate Julian calendar by commemorating Christmas today or tomorrow.
In 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, most Protestant countries feared the switch as a plot to suppress the Reformation. While Catholic Europe adopted it immediately, German, Dutch, Swiss and Nordic Protestants only did so in 1700. Only in 1752 did the British and their American colonies also change, leaping from September 2nd to the 14th the next day. (Benjamin Franklin jested in his almanac: ‘…what an indulgence for those who love their pillow to lie down in peace on the second of this month and not perhaps awake till the morning of the fourteenth!’)
Sign of hope
While we may think of Epiphany as marking the end of the Christmas season, it should remind us that the Incarnation points to a message to be lived out all year long. It is the promise of things to come, a sign of hope no matter how bleak current news may be.
“A Saviour is born” announced the angels. Exactly how he would bring this salvation was not clear to the shepherds or to the wise men – nor to Joseph and Mary. Pregnant with God’s future, Mary had simply to ponder all these things in her heart. What was clear was that something was happening, a new stage was being reached in God’s plan. There was something to look forward to.
As we return to our usual routine, let’s also ponder the meaning of the Incarnation for this coming year. We too should live as pregnant with God’s future, expecting the unfolding of his purposes, yet knowing that full understanding will elude us for the present. Jesus has come to restore God’s original purposes… for everything. So our lives in all areas are to be lived now in the light of that future.
Epiphany, or Three Kings, reminds us of God’s mission to all peoples. The Magi were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as ‘king’ and thus to make him known to the wider world. Simeon proclaimed that this child would be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32). Epiphany calls for the healing of divisions of bigotry and prejudice, a theme worth contemplating in today’s climate of growing xenophobia in Europe.
This openness to others starts in our own homes. That is the meaning of a practice seen in many European countries of ‘chalking doors’ – as in the photo above. Written in chalk during Epiphany on door lintels, these series of numbers and letters remain all through the year’s seasons. This may seem rather esoteric and mysterious for those like myself from less traditional church backgrounds. But actually it has deep biblical meaning and reminds us of our call to flesh out hospitality to all.
The formula begins and ends with two-digit numbers, representing the calendar year just beginning. The letters C, M, and B are written between the numbers, and linked by crosses: e.g. 20+C+M+B+24 for the yearv 2024. The crosses represent Christ. The letters C, M, and B are the initials for the traditional names of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), a way of remembering the Latin blessing Christus Mansionem Benedicat – meaning May Christ bless this house.
‘Chalking doors’ invites God’s presence into the home, just as the Holy Family showed hospitality to the Magi (and thus all Gentiles). It has been described as ‘a consecration of the home as a place of Christian hospitality, a safe and peaceful outpost of the Kingdom of God in the world, a habitation of healing and rest’.
May our homes this year be the starting point for that future to be fleshed out ‘as safe and peaceful outposts of the Kingdom of God’.