Monday, 14 January 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 20 January 2019,
Second Sunday after Epiphany

The Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11) … a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 20 January 2019, is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and the Epiphany theme continues in the readings.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland for next Sunday are:

Readings: Isaiah 62: 1-5; Psalm 36: 5-10; I Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Introducing the readings:

The readings for Sunday next continue the exploration of the great themes of Epiphany. The Greek word ἐπιφάνεια (epipháneia) means ‘manifestation,’ or ‘striking appearance.’ It is an experience of sudden and striking realisation, and in classical drama and literature it often describes the visit of a god to earth.

The feast of Christ’s divinity completes the feast of his humanity. It fulfils all our Advent longing for the king who comes in power and majesty. While Christmas has been the family feast of Christianity, Epiphany is the great world feast of the Church.

Epiphany as a feast finds its origins in the celebrations of the Eastern Church. Drawing on this Eastern theme, one American writer (Elsa Chaney, The Twelve Days of Christmas, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1955) has said Epiphany ‘is like a rich Oriental tapestry in which the various themes are woven and interwoven – now to be seen in their historical setting, again to be viewed from a different vantage point in their deep mystical significance.’

The great, significant Epiphany themes, narrated in the lectionary Gospel readings this year (Year C) over a three-week period, are:

● The Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12, 6 January 2019, The Epiphany);

● The Baptism of Christ (Luke 3: 17-17, 21-22, 13 February 2019, the First Sunday after Epiphany);

● The Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11, 20 January 2019, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany).

In each of these three events, Christ is manifest as God-incarnate at a point that marks the beginning of his ministry or his presence among us. It is the moment when we are caught off guard as we realise that this seemingly helpless new-born child, or this one among many in the team of visitors to John the Baptist at the Jordan, or this anonymous guest among many at a provincial wedding, is in fact the omnipotent God, the King and Ruler of the universe.

Our celebrations of Epiphany also mark the extension of Christ’s kingship to the whole world. The revelation of Christ to the three kings at Bethlehem is a symbol of his revelation to the whole of the Gentile world. Epiphany presents to us the calling of not merely a chosen few, but all nations to Christianity.

The theme of light is found throughout these Sundays after the Epiphany. During Advent, the world is in darkness, at Christmas the Light shines forth, and at Epiphany the Light bursts forth to all nations and the prophecy is fulfilled: ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’ (Isaiah 60: 3).

The star of Epiphany may be seen in many different lights. The three wise men have the courage to follow the light of the star on a journey that is hazardous. It is the same light that enlightens us at the Epiphany so that we realise who Christ is for us and for the world.

But the Epiphany stories also have a built-in thread or reminder of return:

● The three kings return to their own country, albeit by another road, yet carrying to all they return to (see Matthew 2: 12).

● After his Baptism, Christ goes into wilderness (see Matthew 4: 1) and then withdraws to Galilee to begin his ministry (see Matthew 4: 12; Mark 1: 14; Luke 3: 23; John 1: 43).

● After the wedding at Cana, Jesus went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples (see John 2: 12).

So, the feast of the Epiphany is linked with the call to return to the world with the message of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel reading for Sunday next (20 January 2019) takes up the third of the great themes of Epiphany, the wedding feast or royal banquet. The wedding at Cana suggests Christ’s wedding with the Church.

The wise men represent not only the three Magi adoring the Christ Child over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but also represent the Gentile world hurrying to the wedding feast at the end of time when humanity’s wedding with the divine Bridegroom is celebrated. The gold, frankincense and myrrh they bring are not only presents for the Child-King, but royal wedding gifts for the mystical marriage feast of heaven.

Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim (John 2: 7) … two large jars or pithoi at the Minoan palace in Knossos, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaiah 62: 1-5:

The setting and context for this reading is the time after Persia has conquered Babylon and has allowed the people of Israel to return to a small parcel of land around Jerusalem.

The land is ravished, and after their initial joy evaporates, the people feel that God has ceased caring for them.

In earlier chapters, the prophet has spoken of a new Zion, of a renewed city and of a renewed people. The new Jerusalem will be built by foreigners (Isaiah 61: 5). People will be more faithful to God. And God will establish a pact with the people that will last forever.

Now, either the prophet or God tells of the cleansing of Israel’s reputation (‘vindication,’ 62: 1). It will break forth with the suddenness of dawn in the desert: one moment is dark, the next moment is light. The image of Israel’s salvation as ‘a burning torch’ (verse 1) recalls the many torches lighting up the city on the Feast of Tabernacles.

And in this moment, Israel’s salvation is seen to the extent that ‘all the kings’ (verse 2, all nations) will see God’s glory and his power, reflected in and radiated by, Israel.

When God made a covenant with Abram, giving him new status as ‘ancestor of a multitude of nations’ (Genesis 17: 5), he changed his name to Abraham. So too will God’s people enjoy a new status. They will be a royal people (verse 3), protected by God.

Verse 4 tells us Israel’s new status. Israel will become God’s spouse.

God promises that no longer will he give Israel’s harvests to her enemies (verse 8), as punishment for disobedience. God will be seen to love Israel again: a truly joyous event.

Psalm 36: 5-10:

The Psalm portion (Psalm 36: 5-10) speaks of the love of God and God’s faithfulness (verses 5, 10), God’s message to all people (verse 7 ‘all mortal flesh’) and all creation (verse 6), the light of God (verse 10). In a sermon you might even find a connection with the Gospel story in the waters of the well of Life (verse 9).

I Corinthians 12: 1-11:

The Epistle reading (I Corinthians 12: 1-11) talks too of gifts of the Spirit, which you might link with the gifts the Wise Men bring, the gifts the guests must have brought to the wedding at Cana, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

The Wedding at Cana … a modern icon

John 2: 1-11:

Chapter 1 of Saint John’s Gospel introduces us to a new creation, a new creation that is in Christ. After the Prologue, there are six days in this new creation, and now we come to Day Seven.

What did God do on the Seventh Day in the account of creation in the Book Genesis? God rested. And now that we have arrived at Day Seven in the opening week of Saint John’s Gospel, we come to the Day that Christ rests with his disciples, and to a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, which is the completion of God’s creation. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19: 9).

Seven has a symbolic meaning or significance in this Gospel. This is the first of the seven miraculous signs by which John attests to Christ’s divine status. This Gospel is structured around these signs, and the word used by John is unique. He uses the Greek word σημεῖον (semeion, ‘sign,’ or ἔργον, ergon, meaning ‘work’), instead of the term the Synoptic writers normally use for miracle, δύναμις (dynamis, meaning act of power).

This is the first of the Seven Signs, which are:

1. Turning water into wine (2: 1-12);
2. Healing the royal official’s son (4: 46-54), also at Cana;
3. Healing the paralysed man at Bethesda (5: 1-9);
4. Feeding the 5,000 (6: 1-14);
5. Walking on water (6: 15-24);
6. Healing the blind man (9: 1-7);
7. The raising of Lazarus (11: 17-45).

These are completed then by the Greatest Sign, the Resurrection (see 2:18-22).

The seven signs are interspersed with long dialogues and discourses, including the seven ‘I AM’ sayings. In these discourses, Jesus identifies himself with symbols of major significance. There are seven ‘I AM’ statements:

1. I AM the Bread of Life (6: 35);
2. I AM the Light of the World (8: 12);
3. I AM the door of the sheep (10: 7);
4. I AM the Good Shepherd (10: 11);
5. I AM the Resurrection and the Life (11: 25);
6. I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14: 6);
7. I AM the True Vine (15: 1).

In addition, there are Seven Witnesses:

1. John the Baptist (1: 34);
2. Nathaniel (1: 49);
3. Peter (6: 69);
4. Christ (10: 36) – the Central and Greatest witness;
5. Martha (11: 27);
6. Thomas (20: 28);
7. John the Beloved Disciple (20: 31).

And so the first of the seven signs comes on the seventh of the seven days that introduce the Gospel.

‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee’ (John 2: 1) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The significance of Cana

In Chapter 1, Christ promises the new disciples that he would show them his glory … this morning we see that promise fulfilled in the first sign, at the wedding in Cana.

The image of the Lamb of God in this Gospel was like a triptych, with the two Johns – John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospel, and John the Beloved Disciple at the end – as witnesses to who the Lamb of God is. In a similar way, Galilee acts as a geographical enclosure for Christ’s disclosure: Galilee is the first place to behold Christ’s glory, as we see in this story; and Galilee will be the last place to behold his glory, as we see with the post-Resurrection stories in Chapter 21, and there too we also come across Cana and Nathanael.

The bride arrives for a Mediterranean wedding in Amalfi in Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Summary of story

While Christ is attending the wedding in Cana with his disciples, the hosts run out of wine. The mother of Jesus tells him: ‘They have no more wine.’ And Jesus replies: ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.’

His mother then says to the servants: ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (2: 5).

Jesus orders the servants to fill the empty containers with water and to draw out some and take it to the chief waiter. After tasting the water that had become wine, and not knowing what Christ has done, he remarks to the bridegroom that he has departed from the custom of serving the best wine first by serving it last (verses 6-10). John then tells us: ‘This was the first miracle of Jesus and it was performed to reveal his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him’ (verse 11).

This miracle is not mentioned in any of the other three Gospels, although it has parallels with the parable of the New Wine and Old Wineskins.

In the Old Testament, we read promises that there will be an abundance of wine in the time of the Messiah (Genesis 27: 27-28; 49: 10-12; Amos 9: 13-14), especially at the wedding feasts (see Isaiah 62: 4-5). The wine in this story represents the overflowing and abundant blessings of God coming to fruition.

The Wedding at Cana … a modern icon

Verse 1:

On the third day: this is not to distract us from the significance of this being the seventh day, but remember that Christ rose on the Third Day. We are to read this story with the benefit of the hindsight of Resurrection faith.

I had a cousin-by-marriage who delighted in the spoiling prank of going down the queues outside the cinemas in Oxford when Love Story with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw was first showing in 1970 and saying to each person in turn: ‘She dies in the end.’ But you cannot spoil the reader of the Fourth Gospel by telling him or her: ‘He dies in the end.’ That is not the end, and this first sign prepares us, in a way, for the greatest of all signs, beyond the seventh sign.

Cana was a small village about 12 km north-west of Nazareth.

‘… and the mother of Jesus was there.’ Mary is never named in this Gospel.

Verse 2:

Jesus and his disciples have been invited, together. We don’t know who the bride and groom were. But at weddings new families are formed. No-one is ever the same again. Brothers become brothers-in-law, sisters become sisters-in-law, mothers become mothers-in-law. New families, new bonds of kinship are created. I wonder who was seated with the groom’s family, and who with the bride’s family. Perhaps they were all related in some distant way.

Christ’s arrival shows us that we are all part of God’s family. As the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes puts it, Jesus became our half-brother in his fleshly birth to Mary, and adopted us to the Father, and full brotherhood, in his resurrection!

Verse 3:

Note that Mary does not make a request here – she simply observes or passes comment on a matter of fact in her conversation with her son. They have no wine. She is not asking for a miracle.

Verse 4:

It sounds at first as though Jesus is being dismissive, almost as if he is telling his mother to go away and to not bother him. But when Jesus calls his mother ‘Woman’ it is not a dismissive or derogatory term, but a term of great respect, as it is again at the Crucifixion, when he says: ‘Woman, here is your son’ (see 19: 26).

Nevertheless, the hour of his self-disclosure was determined not by Mary’s desire but by God. And that hour, ultimately, is the only other time when John mentions Mary, when Christ is on the Cross.

As we have been comparing these seven days with the first seven days in Genesis, then we can compare the role of the woman in the garden (Eve), who is the man’s companion, with the role of the woman at the wedding feast. Once again, there is the balance between eating and drinking, between being sent out into the world, and being called back to the fullness of the heavenly banquet.

Verse 5:

There is a resigned tone to Mary’s voice. She accepts whatever her Son may say, even if it is not going to turn out to be what she expected. What did she expect? What did she know at this stage? What did she think her Son could say or would do? Notice the connection made here between saying and doing, just as this Gospel also makes the connection between seeing and believing.

Verse 6:

The six stone jars contained water for rites of purification. These were ceremonial rites, not hygienic rites. But each jar contained 20 or 30 gallons, so we’re talking about 180 gallons of wine – roughly speaking, in today’s terms, 1,091 bottles of wine. And because the wine was so good (see 9-10) in those days it would then have water added to it, and this may have double the amount – so perhaps up to 1,500 or 2,000 bottles of wine by today’s reckoning. It was enough to ensure they partied for days, and weddings in the Eastern Mediterranean do go on for days.

Verse 7:

Jesus says … and they do.

Why do you think the servants obeyed Mary and then obeyed Jesus?

And why was the steward not in control of what was going on at this stage?

Was he hiding in embarrassment?

Had he headed off to buy some more wine?

Had that been a failed venture, like the disciples later fail to come back with food when they are sent to Sychar (see John 4)?

Verse 8:

The steward (ἀρχιτρίκλινος, architriklinos) was the superintendent of the dining room, a table master. He was different from the toast-master, who was one of the guests selected by lot to prescribe to the rest the mode of drinking. The table-master was to place in order the tables and the couches, arrange the courses, taste the food and wine beforehand, and so on.

Notice the role of similar people in other Gospel stories. Here and in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22: 2-14), the attendants have the role of deacon (διάκονος, diákonos), a waiter, one who executes the commands of another, especially of the master or the architriklinos (ἀρχιτρίκλινος).

The word for the unjust steward (Luke 16: 1-8) is οἰκονόμος (oykonomos), the manager of a household or of household affairs who was free-born or a freed-man who was delegated oversight.

We can see here the parallels with the ministry of bishop and priest and of deacon later in the New Testament. Who does the steward at Cana have parallels with?

The wine gives out (verse 3).

Why do you think this happens?

Because everyone has had too much to drink?

Because the groom, as he ought to in that tradition, did not buy in enough wine?

Or, because the groom had bought enough wine, but someone was siphoning it off, hoping everyone would be too drunk to notice?

Embarrassing, yes. But for whom?

Certainly for Mary, she takes action immediately. You can just picture her as the concerned aunt, like so many aunts at a wedding, not wanting her nephew or his new wife to be embarrassed.

But not for Jesus.

And not for the servants either. They seem to have done just what they were told to do.

Wine fraud is one of the oldest frauds in the world. Perhaps the finger of suspicion points at the chief steward, the master of the feast, the architríklinos (ἀρχιτρίκλινος) in verses 8-10.

He has not been paying attention to what has been going on. At best, he has been negligent, at worst he was complicit, perhaps even the organiser.

Have the newly-wed couple and their guests, and their servants too, been the victims of a smart con trick by the chief steward?

Is he inefficient? Does he not realise what’s going on? Did he not buy all the wine that he charged for? Or, perhaps, has he been siphoning off the wine?

He is certainly not a model of probity as a wedding planner. Perhaps he is avoiding some potentially tough questions when he claims dismissively: ‘Everyone serves the good wine first’ (verse 10).

That is patently not so. And he never even asks where the wine comes from. He just accepts that it’s there. Perhaps he suspects he has been caught out.

Verse 9:

As I was preparing these notes, I just thought about those words from the Psalmist: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34: 8).

Verse 10:

See how the steward shifts responsibility to the bridegroom. But the truth is that the good wine has been kept until now. Now the best of God’s promises are about to be fulfilled

Verse 11:

The miracles were not wonders to astound, but were signs pointing to Christ’s glory and God’s presence in him. This is the first of the signs. For the second sign see John 4: 46-54.

Verse 12, the Missing Verse:

When the wedding is over, Jesus heads back to Capernaum, which was on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. He goes there with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples. New relationships have been formed. Some of them go back as new brothers-in-law, perhaps one of the them was a new father-in-law. Christ calls us into new relationships, with him, with God the Father, and with one another. And in those new relationships, there are new expectations.

Frank Sinatra had a hit in 1964 with the song. The best is yet to come in 1964 and these are the words on his gravestone.

The Wedding at Cana, the Epiphany cycle of stories, the promise contained in the stories that compare wedding banquets with the Kingdom of God, all let us know that in God’s plans, in Christ’s hope, for ‘the little people’ who feel cheated and marginalised, ‘the best is yet to come.’

As for that wedding at Cana, as with all good stories, you might well ask: Did they live happy ever after?

Well, the lectionary compilers end this story at verse 11. But the next verse, verse 12, says:

After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days (Μετὰ τοῦτο κατέβη εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ αὐτὸς καὶ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ [αὐτοῦ] καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἔμειναν οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας).

They go to the wedding together, and they go back together, but things have changed. After the wedding, someone is a new brother-in-law, a new sister-in-law, is going to be a new aunt or a new uncle. In time to come, a new family is structured.

It was a long walk back: 18 miles or 27 km, and in the conditions of the time it would have taken a good day’s walk.

What did they talk about on the long day’s walk?

Was that your cousin?

Is she your new sister-in-law?

Who did he dance with?

Will they fall in love?

Are they really in love?

When we publicly show our love for one another, when we form new families, when we allow the ripples of love to spread out in ways that we cannot control, in ways in which we lose control, then we are truly partners in creating the Kingdom of God.

Even if the couple at Cana broke up afterwards, grandparents would continue to share the same grandchildren.

We make family at weddings, but we cannot control family. Already, I have an invitation to a family weddings later this year. But I have no say over who my brothers-in-law are, who my nieces or nephews marry, and I certainly have no say about who my grandparents were, the decisions they made or the way they behaved. And that is so for the generations to come too.

I imagine the Kingdom of God is like that. Those who are invited to the heavenly banquet are going to include people I at first may be uncomfortable to sit with at the same table. But I am not the host, I am the guest, and the invitations are sent out into the side-streets and the alleyways (Matthew 22: 9-10). ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19: 9).

I cannot choose who is invited to the wedding, but I can accept the invitation to the meal, and the invitation to be part of the new family, the kingdom.

And if we accept the invitation, we have no right to pick and choose, to discriminate against my fellow guests, to cheat them out of their place at the table, to refuse to eat and drink with them.

In the Kingdom of God, ‘the best is yet to come.’

Waiting for the banquet at sunset on the beach in Rethymnon in Crete … in the Kingdom of God, ‘the best is yet to come.’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Two final notes:

1, The Bridegroom’s Crown:

There are two types of crowns in the New Testament: στέφανος (stéphanos) and διάδημα (diádema).

The στέφανος is the victor’s crown or wreath at games and feasts (see I Corinthians 9: 24-25; Galatians 2: 2; Philippians 3: 14; II Timothy 2: 5; I Peter 5: 4). But it is also used, for example, in the following contexts and passages:

● Christ’s crown of thorns (Matthew 27: 29; Mark 15: 17; John 19: 2, 5);
● humanity crowned with glory and honour (Hebrews. 2: 7);
●Christ crowned with glory and honour (Hebrews 2: 9);
● Saint Paul’s crowned believers (Philippians 4: 1; I Thessalonians 2: 19);
● the Twenty-Four Elders (Revelation 4: 4 ff, 10 ff);
● the rider on the white horse (Revelation 6: 2 ff);
● the locusts from the abyss (Revelation 9: 7);
● the woman with twelve stars (Revelation 12: 1 ff);
● the one like the Son of Man (Revelation 14: 14 ff).

Στέφανος is also the crown used at a wedding.

The diadem (διάδημα) is a royal crown, and is used, for example, in the following passages:

● The crowns on the seven heads of the fiery red dragon (Revelation 12: 3 ff);
●The crowns on the ten horns of the beast rising up from the sea (Revelation. 13: 1 ff);
● The crown on the head of the one called Faithful and True (Revelation 19: 12 ff).

However, it is significant that when Christ’s royalty and kingship is being referred to (see Matthew 27: 29; Mark 15: 17; John 19: 2, 5), the word crown used is stéphanos (στέφανος) and not diádema (διάδημα). He is crowned with the crown of the victor and the bridegroom.

When we make connections between the wedding at Cana and the wedding in Isaiah 62, how do we present Christ as crowned groom and victor?

2, The end of the story:

I have long wondered why the Gospel reading on Sunday (John 2: 1-11) ends at verse 11, and does not include verse 12. The gifts that Christ brings to the wedding at Cana are overshadowed by the generous outpouring of wine that allows the wedding to continue, just as the story of his Baptism by John in the Jordan is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit who hovers over the waters as a reminder of a new creation.

But the other miracle at Cana is the formation of new families. Someone becomes a new father-in-law, a new sister-in-law, eventually a new grandmother, a new uncle.

The fruit of the vine becomes the wine; the fruit of the wedding is a new family. The new family in the banquet with Christ though is that family that comes to live with him in verse 12 – not just his mother and brothers, but his disciples too. We become a new and renewed family around the table at the banquet.

Some questions:

Can you see the three major narratives of the Epiphany season reflected in this reading:

● The visit of the kings representing the nations of the earth (see verses 2 and 3)?

● Baptism and new life (see verses 4-5)?

● Wedding and heavenly banquet (through each verse)?

Can you see the three major themes of the Epiphany season reflected in this reading:

● Light (verse 1)?

● Return (the setting and context of the reading)?

● Wedding or heavenly banquet (verses 4-5)?

Empty tables waiting for the wedding banquet … the Gospel reading for Sunday next takes up the third of the great themes of Epiphany – the wedding feast is the royal banquet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 2: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

[12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days.]

‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ (1670-1672), by Jan Steen (1626-1679), The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: White

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of glory,
you nourish us with bread from heaven.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that through us the light of your glory
may shine in all the world.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

Finding good wine to serve at the end of the meal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested hymns:

The hymns suggested for Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000) edited by Bishop Edward Darling include:

Isaiah 62: 1-5:

638, O for a heart to praise my God
528, The Church’s one foundation

Psalm 36: 5-10:

6, Immortal, invisible, God only wise
553, Jesu, lover of my soul

I Corinthians 12: 1-11:

294, Come down, O love divine
408, Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest
297, Come, thou Holy Spirit, come
318, Father, Lord of all creation
312, Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost
91, He is Lord, he is Lord
299, Holy Spirit, come, confirm us
421, I come with joy, a child of God
96, Jesus is Lord! Creation’s voice proclaims it
301, Let every Christian pray
102, Name of all majesty
306, O Spirit of the living God
438, O thou who at thy eucharist didst pray
307, Our great Redeemer, as he breathed
440, One bread, one body, one Lord of all
313, The Spirit came as promised
491, We have a gospel to proclaim

John 2: 1-11:

197, Songs of thankfulness and praise
445, Soul, array thyself with gladness
528, The Church’s one foundation
448, The trumpets sound, the angels sing

A wedding in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Monday, 7 January 2019

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 13 January 2019,
First Sunday after Epiphany

The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist depicted at the Duomo in Florence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 13 January 2019, is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, and the Epiphany theme continues in the readings.

. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland for next Sunday are:

Readings: Isaiah 43: 1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

An icon of the Baptism of Christ, worked on a cut of olive wood by Eleftheria Syrianoglou, in a recent exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Introducing the Readings:

Christmas appears to have come to an end. The 12 Days of Christmas came to an end with our celebrations of the Epiphany on Sunday [6 January 2019]. Long before that, however, many people had returned to work, the schools have reopened, the Christmas decorations are down, the trees and the tinsel have gone, and the shopping centres have stopped blaring out those awful versions of carols.

But Christmas is not over. Christmas is a season of 40 days that ends with Candlemas, the pivotal feastday between Christmas and Easter, that links the cradle with the cross, the Incarnation with the Resurrection.

The feast of the Epiphany celebrates not one but three Theophanies or great events, reminding us what Christmas is truly about and who this Christ Child is for us.

We celebrated the Visit of the Magi on Sunday [6 January 2019]. This Epiphany story is a Theophany, in which the kingdoms of the world are seen bowing down before the King of Kings, sacramentally laying before him, in their gifts, all the wealth of the world. But their gifts are also named because they recognise the Christ Child as Priest, Prophet and King.

The Wedding at Cana, which we read about the Sunday after next [20 January 2019], is an Epiphany or Theophany event too when, even before his time has come, Christ shows who he is.

It is a sacramental moment, with the water and wine after the meal, with the wedding banquet that so often symbolises the Kingdom of God, and where the bridegroom and the bride, as so often, symbolise the covenantal relationship between Christ and the Church. It contains the promise that, to parody the words of Frank Sinatra, ‘the best is yet to come.’

This Sunday’s Gospel reading, Saint Luke’s account of the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, marks the beginning of Christ’s public ministry and is also an Epiphany or Theophany moment.

It is a Trinitarian moment, when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit come together, acting as one, with distinctive personal roles: when Christ is baptised, heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ ‘in bodily form like a dove.’ And the voice of the Father comes from heaven declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3: 21-22).

The Baptism of Christ depicted in stucco relief in the Baptistery in the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaiah 43: 1-7:

The people of Judah have complained that God has deserted them, his people, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and in their exile. In previous chapter, God tells them that they are blind and deaf to his will and his way: they see but do not observe, their ears are open but they do not hear, they are ‘prey with no one to rescue’ them. God asks them, through Isaiah, ‘Who among you ... will attend and listen for the time to come?’ (Isaiah 42: 23).

Now, in Sunday’s reading (Isaiah 43: 1-7), God tells them not to fear for the future: he will rescue and save his people, reminding them he has called them by name. Even when they face danger from waters, rivers and fire, he promises them, ‘I will be with you.’

Because the people are so precious in God’s sight, they will be freed, while Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba (Yemen) will become Persian vassal states. God’s people will be gathered back together from throughout the whole known world, and will share in God’s life so that they will be called by God’s name and give glory to him.

When they people observe and listen, see and hear, God will call them his sons and daughters.

Psalm 29:

This psalm expresses God’s supremacy and universal rule, and all other ‘heavenly beings’ are invited to acknowledge God’s supremacy and to give him the glory due to him.

In the storm, the ‘voice of the Lord’ is heard in the thunder. The storm moves in from the Mediterranean, sweeps in across the land, breaking the tall cedars as it moves across south Lebanon, displays its power on Mount Lebanon and then on Mount Sirion, and moves on into the wilderness, the Arabian Desert.

The Word of God is indeed mighty, and all the people in the Temple acknowledge God’s supremacy as they cry: ‘Glory!’

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace! – Psalm 29: 10-11.

Acts 8: 14-17:

Saint Philip was one of the seven deacons chosen by the apostolic Church to ensure that widows received basic rations (see Acts 6: 1-6). When persecution begins in Jerusalem, he travels to Samaria to preach the good news in people who do not live in Jewish areas. The people there listen eagerly to what Saint Philip tells them, ‘hearing and seeing the signs that he did.’ Even Simon Magus tells them that Philip speaks and acts through God’s power. Those who believed, including Simon, are baptised.

In Sunday’s reading (Acts 8: 14-17), the apostles send Saint Peter and Saint John to Samaria. In the Acts of the Apostles, the converts usually receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism (see Acts 2: 38 and Acts 19: 5-6) or before Baptism (see Acts 10: 44). But in this reading, the new converts receive the Holy Spirit some time after being baptised, and only with the arrival of these two apostles, representing the church.

Later, in Acts 8: 18-24, Simon Magus is going to get it wrong. He offers the apostles money if they will give him the power to impart the Spirit to people – it is this action that gives us to the word simony. Saint Peter reprimands him and tells him the Holy Spirit is God’s gift and cannot be bought.

An icon of Saint John the Baptist in a small chapel in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22:

People flock to Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness in response to his call to start new, ethical lives – as a way of preparing for Christ. But, earlier in this Gospel, Saint John condemns those who seek his baptism without any intention of changing their ways. He warns that being Jewish nominally is no assurance of being part of the Kingdom of God. Failure to respond to his call to repentance leads to condemnation.

The people are expecting a Messiah, an agent of God, who is to restore Israel and proclaim the triumph of God’s power and authority. John tells them that the ‘one who is ... coming’ is so great that he is unworthy even to ‘untie ... his sandals,’ the task of a slave.

The coming Jesus will baptise in the name of the Holy Spirit, and will usher in a new age, harvesting like the judge at the end of time. The wheat is tossed in the air with a winnowing fork, so that the grain falls to the ground, but the chaff is carried away by the wind to the edge of the threshing floor. God will gather the godly, but the ungodly will be condemned.

Christ is then baptised, showing his solidarity with Saint John’s proclamation of God’s plan for saving all who come to him. God is now revealed to all in a Trinitarian Theophany: the Holy Spirit descends on Christ, appearing ‘like a dove,’ and God the Father proclaims, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

The Baptistry at the Duomo in Pisa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A reminder of our Baptism

When we hear this story, it serves as a reminder of our Baptisms, and it is the story of a new creation.

In the Orthodox Church, Epiphany is a day for blessing the waters, at lakes, by rivers, by the sea, and Baptismal water for use in the Church. Many places around the world mark the day with a blessing of the waters and the immersion of a cross in seas, lakes, and rivers. In many places in Greece, for example, the local priest or bishop throws a cross into the sea, breaking the cold ice if necessary, and the diver who retrieves the cross is said to be blessed for the coming year.

But the Baptism of Christ is also about new beginnings for each of us individually and for us collectively as members of the Body of Christ, the Church.

Sunday’s Gospel reading is also the story a new beginning in every sense of the meaning. Did you notice how after the waters are parted, and Christ emerges, just as the waters are separated, earth and water are separated, and then human life emerges in the Creation story in Genesis (see Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 3). Here too the Holy Spirit appears over the waters (see Genesis 1: 2), and God says ‘I am well pleased,’ just as God sees that every moment of creation is good (see Genesis 1: 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and with the creation of humanity it becomes ‘very good’ (verse 31).

But this Gospel reading also poses two sets of questions for me.

My first set of questions begins by asking:

● What would a parting of the waters and the promise of a new beginning, a new creation, mean for people in Ireland today?

● Would they be able to believe that what God has made is ‘very good’?

● Have we been responsible enough when it comes to the care of the creation that has been entrusted to us?

And my second set of questions arising from this Gospel reading begins:

● What would a parting of the waters and the promise of a new beginning mean for people caught as refugees in the cold waters of the Mediterranean or in the English Channel between France and England in this winter weather?

● Would they be able to believe in the hope that ‘the best is yet is offered at Epiphany?

In recent years, I have been moved by the response of Canon Malcolm Bradshaw when he was at Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens and volunteers throughout the Greek Islands to the refugee crisis in the waters of the Aegean Sea.

However, we might ask whether we are leaving it all either to ‘those out there’ in NGOs, to mission agencies and other churches or to governments to decide how to respond?

It is at the very end of the creation cycle, after the creation and separation of the waters, when God has created us in human form, that God pronounces not just that it is good, but that it is very good.

In responding to our promises at Baptism, we must take responsibility for creation and for humanity – those responsibilities are inseparable. But they are at the heart of the Epiphany stories if we show that we truly believe that ‘the best has yet to come.’

The Baptismal Font in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 (NRSVA):

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming’ (Luke 3: 16) … a fresco in a church in the mountain village of Maroulas, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical colour: White

The Collect:

Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
Grant to us, who are born of water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Refreshed by these holy gifts, Lord God,
we seek your mercy:
that by listening faithfully to your only Son,
and being obedient to the prompting of the Spirit,
we may be your children in name and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The Baptism font in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick … a reminder of our own Baptismal commitments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Renewing Baptismal promises:

At the beginning of the new year, it is good to be reminded of the promises at our baptism, and that we have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, which is the Church. A good example of how this is done at the beginning of the year is the Methodist Covenant Service and the Methodist Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.


The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ in the Neonian Baptistry in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000) edited by Bishop Edward Darling include:

Isaiah 43: 1-7:

642, Amazing grace (how sweet the sound!)
12, God is our strength and refuge
481, God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year
557, Rock of ages, cleft for me
595, Safe in the shadow of the Lord
22, You shall cross the barren desert

Psalm 29:

349, Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
30, Let us with a gladsome mind
431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
45, Praise, O praise our God and King

Acts 8: 14-17:

294, Come down, O Love divine
297, Come, thou Holy Spirit, come
318, Father, Lord of all creation
312, Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost
91, He is Lord, he is Lord
299, Holy Spirit, come, confirm us
421, I come with joy, a child of God
301, Let every Christian pray
306, O Spirit of the living God
313, The Spirit came as promised

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22:

295, Come, gracious Spirit, heavenly Dove
324, God whose almighty word
126, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding
419, I am not worthy, Holy Lord
322, I bind unto myself today (verses 1, 2, 8, 9)
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
214, O Love, how deep, how broad, how high
136, On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
197, Songs of thankfulness and praise
341, Spirit divine, attend our prayers
386, Spirit of God, unseen as the wind
200, The sinless one to Jordan came
204, When Jesus came to Jordan

Saint John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in the north ambulatory in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Monday, 31 December 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 6 January 2019,
The Epiphany

‘Star of Bethlehem’ (1887-1890) by Edward Burn-Jones (1833-1898) … the largest watercolour of the 19th century, and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday is the Feast of the Epiphany [6 January 2019], and the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. On this feast day, we remember that at his Epiphany, Christ was made manifest to all nations and to the peoples of the earth

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland for next Sunday are:

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The visit of the Magi in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Introduction:

Increasingly, it seems, many people think the 12 Days of Christmas are the 12 days before rather than the 12 days after Christmas. But, in fact, Christmas does not end even at the Feast of Epiphany, but continues as a season in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February.

Epiphany is part and parcel of the Christmas celebrations, with two more important Epiphany events to mark liturgically in the coming weeks:

● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about the following Sunday [13 January 2019];

● the Wedding Feast in Cana, which we read about on the Sunday after [20 January 2019].

This Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12) is one that symbolises the gentiles coming to Christ, and bowing before him in worship, laying their gifts and treasurers at his feet.

The promise of Isaiah after the return to Jerusalem is that the ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you’ (Isaiah 60: 3, 5-6).

The images in the Psalm of the kings across the known universe coming to visit the king in Jerusalem after the return from exile in the Persia empire also inspired Saint Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi.

Saint Paul reminds us in the Epistle reading of the promises in Christ being brought as gifts to the Gentiles and in the Gospel we are reminded of the Gentiles bringing their gifts to Christ and worshipping him with all they have.

This posting includes notes on each of the Lectionary readings next Sunday, and includes three sets of sermon ideas: the Gospel reading; a poem by TS Eliot; and a well-known Epiphany carol.

This posting concludes with a note on Chalking the Doors, an Epiphany tradition that is found throughout the English-speaking world and that I notice in recent years is being introduced in places in Ireland. There are notes on how to mark the doors of a church and rectory/house, and some suggested prayers too.

The Adoration by the Magi … an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaiah 60: 1-6:

Darius, the King of Persia, has allowed the once-exiled people to return to Jerusalem. The prophet tells the people to arise, for their light has come and joy and prosperity are in the city. God is with them ans they will reflect the presence and glory of God.

Dawn breaks suddenly in the Middle East, so that dark becomes day almost instantly. Thick darkness covers the earth and all people, but Israel will be different: God will come to them, be present with them and act for them. Many nations will come to pay homage to God.

Only some of the exiles returned from Babylon, but soon those who were scattered at the conquest of Jerusalem will be gathered in together again and form a new community. People from all nations will come to the city to see God’s activity among his people. Those who return will grow in their knowledge of God and other nations will bring them their wealth in abundance.

The wealth of these nations will be brought to them on camels and ships, across the seas and the sands, from Midian and Ephah, from Sheba and Tarshish. These gifts include gold and frankincense (verse 6), and Jerusalem, once destroyed by foreigners, will be rebuilt by foreigners.

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14:

Psalm 72 is a prayer for eternal life, for God’s blessings for ever. It is a song praying for gifts for ‘the king,’ including justice, righteousness and long life, so that he may defend the poor, deliver the needy and crush the oppressor and that righteousness may flourish and peace abound.

The psalmist mentions the kings of three areas: Tarshish, thought to be present-day Spain; the Isles, which may refer Crete and Cyprus; and Sheba and Saba, present-day Yemen, with its capital at Saba. The bring together the trade routes across the breadth of the whole Mediterranean, and from Jerusalem to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and the African coast. In this way, they symbolise poetically all earthly rulers.

The psalm contains memories of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and the Temple in Jerusalem.

The psalmist prays that these three kings may bring gifts to the one true king, who delivers the needy, hears the cry of the poor, has pity on the week and needy, and save the needy, delivers them from oppression and violence, redeems their lives, and saves them from bloodshed.

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus … Saint Paul is writing from prison, probably in Rome, to the Church in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ephesians 3: 1-12:

Saint Paul speaks of himself as being called as the apostle who is sent to bring the gift of this good news to the Gentiles (verse 8) so that ‘everyone’ may know that they are invited to ‘see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things’ (verse 9).

In this reading, Saint Paul says he is writing this letter from prison (see Ephesians 3: 1), probably in Rome. Although the Bible says it was written ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus’ (Ephesians 1: 1, NRSVA), some early manuscripts lack ‘in Ephesus.’ Perhaps this is a circular letter sent to a number of churches, celebrating the life of the Church.

In this reading, Saint Paul recounts his mission to the Gentiles (verse 8). His ‘few words’ about the ‘mystery’ referred to in verse 3 ask us to turn back a few pages to Ephesians 1: 8-10, where Saint Paul says God ‘God has made known to us the mystery of his will (μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος).’

The word mysterion (μυστήριον) is used to refer to something hidden, a secret or religious mystery, not known to uninitiated, ordinary people. The Church came to use this word mysterion (μυστήριον) to refer to a sacrament, particularly to the Eucharist.

In many Churches next Sunday morning, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we will be inviting people to approach Christ, in an Epiphany celebration, to lay our gifts before him, and to meet him in this sacred mystery.

Saint Paul reminds us in this epistle reading that the coming of Christ is the fulfilment of the promises to the prophets and apostles (verse 5) and to all nations or Gentiles (verse 6), so that all may share in the promise in Christ. We have all become heirs to God together and members of one body (verse 6).

The Visit of the Magi in the 13th century Church of the Holy Cross or ‘Martyrium’ in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 2: 1-12:

The Magi, as the ‘Three Kings’ or ‘Three Wise Men,’ are regular figures in traditional nativity stories and in Christmas and Epiphany celebrations. But the visit of the Magi is recalled in one Gospel alone, in Matthew 2:1-12, the reading for next Sunday.

Although Saint Matthew does not mention the number of wise men, the number of gifts they gave to the Christ Child has given rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.

The Hebrew Scriptures (see Isaiah 60: 1-10, Psalm 72) speak of gifts given by kings and of the Messiah being worshipped by kings. Saint Matthew’s account was reinterpreted in the light of these prophecies, and so the magi became kings rather than Persian wise men or priests. Perhaps this interpretation was influenced by the negative image of magi not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament.

The word magi comes from the plural of the Greek magos (μαγος, plural μαγοι), which in turn comes from the Old Persian magus. These magi were members of the Persian priestly or religious caste. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, the magi or wise men are led by Daniel (see Daniel 2: 48). But the same term later has negative connotation when it is used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the sorcery of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and the magic of Elymas (Acts 13: 6-11).

In Western tradition, the magi of the Epiphany have been named as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These names may come from an early sixth century Greek manuscript in Alexandria, although other authorities say the names are first found in an eighth century Irish manuscript. However, Syrian Orthodox tradition names the three magi as Larvanad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdad, while Ethiopian sources name them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, and the Armenians call them Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.

In our cribs, they are often portrayed as European, African and Asian, with the European giving gold and the other two giving myrrh and frankincense. There are many theories about the meaning and symbolism of these gifts. Gold is fairly obviously explained, but frankincense and myrrh are more obscure. Myrrh was commonly used for anointing, frankincense was a perfume, and gold is valuable. But the gifts had a spiritual meaning too: gold symbolises kingship on earth, frankincense is a symbol of priesthood, while myrrh is an embalming oil that symbolises death. Or gold represents virtue, frankincense represents prayer, and myrrh represents suffering.

In the Patristic tradition, Saint John Chrysostom of Constantinople suggests that these gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God. He contrasted them with the traditional Temple offerings of sheep and calves, and deduced that the Magi worshiped the new-born Christ Child as God.

One story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Christ. Another says it was entrusted to Judas and then misappropriated by him. But in the Monastery of Saint Paul (Αγίου Παύλου) on Mount Athos, there is a 15th century golden case that is said to contain the Gift of the Magi.

Saint Matthew sets the date for the birth of Christ in the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judah, who died in 4 BC. Herod’s fears are aroused because his dynasty may come to an end. He consults the religious experts to find out where the magi should look for the Messiah. They answer with Scripture: they loosely blend Micah 5: 2 and II Samuel 5: 2.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Three Gifts and the Three Wise Men:

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is the day, traditionally, that the Christmas decorations come down. But over the next few weeks, the Epiphany readings in the Lectionary remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas or Nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

The three principle Epiphany themes in the Gospels are:

● The Adoration of the Magi (this year’s Gospel reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2018, Matthew 2: 1-12);

● The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, the following Sunday’s reading, Epiphany 1, 13 January 2019, Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22);

● The miracle at the wedding in Cana (Epiphany II, 20 January 2019, John 2: 1-11).

But, while we are moving from Christmas to Epiphany, which ends at the Feast of the Presentation on Candlemas on 2 February, the Epiphany season is truly a continuation of the Christmas season, the liturgical colour remains white, and together Christmas and Epiphany form one full, continuous season of 40 days.

The visit of the Magi is a symbolic presentation of God’s revelation in Christ to the Gentiles. This Visit is a popular image for Christmas cards, but very often we have taken down the Christmas cards by the Feast of the Epiphany, and so we are left without a visual reminder of what they represent.

Saint Matthew’s phrase ‘from the east’ (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, apo anatolon, Matthew 2: 1), more literally means ‘from the rising [of the sun],’ but it does not tell us who they were or where they came from.

As the tradition developed, the three wise men were transformed into kings who have been named as:

● Melchior, a Persian scholar;

● Caspar, an Indian scholar;

● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.

In Western art from the 14th century on, they are portrayed in these ways:

● Caspar is the older man with a long white beard, who is first in line to kneel before the Christ Child and who gives him the gift of gold.

● Melchior is portrayed as a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

● Balthazar is presented a young man, very often black-skinned, with the gift of myrrh.

Saint Matthew names their gifts as: gold, frankincense, and myrrh: χρυσον (chryson), λιβανον (libanon) and σμυρναν (smyrnan) (Matthew 2: 11).

These are ordinary offerings and gifts – for a king. But from Patristic times these gifts have been given spiritual meanings:

● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;

● Frankincense as a symbol of worship and so of Christ’s deity;

● Myrrh as an anointing oil for his priesthood, or as an embalming oil and a symbol of his death.

Origen summarises it in this way: ‘Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God’ (Contra Celsum).

Sometimes this is described more generally as:

● Gold symbolising virtue;

● Frankincense symbolising prayer;

● Myrrh symbolising suffering.

These interpretations are alluded to by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), the son of a Dublin-born Episcopalian bishop, in his carol We Three Kings (No 201, Irish Church Hymnal), in which the last verse summarises this interpretation:

Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God and Sacrifice
.

Do you think the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took those gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt?

Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.

There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance their when they fled.

Another story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who are later crucified alongside Christ. Yet, another says the gold was entrusted to Judas, who misappropriated it.

And another story says the myrrh was used to anoint Christ’s body after his crucifixion, before his burial.

There are many traditions about what happened to the Three Wise Men afterwards. One story says they were baptised by Saint Thomas on his way to India. Another says their bodies were found by the Empress Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, and brought to the great church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. From there they were moved to Milan, and eventually enshrined in Cologne Cathedral.

But whatever the traditions, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get at is that Christmas and Epiphany find their full meaning and their fulfilment in Good Friday and Easter Day, in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when we see the Suffering and Risen Christ fully revealed to us as Prophet, Priest and King.

And they challenge us to ask whether we are offering our best, or merely our second best to Christ – to Christ in the suffering world, to Christ in the Church, to Christ who is to come again.

It was a challenge that was thrown down over a century and a half ago by John Keble (1792-1866), who concludes his poem Epiphany with these words:

Behold, her wisest throng thy gate,
Their richest, sweetest, purest store,
(Yet owned too worthless and too late,)
They lavish on thy cottage-floor.

They give their best – O tenfold shame
On us their fallen progeny,
Who sacrifice the blind and lame –
Who will not wake or fast with thee!


The Journey of the Magi … on their way to the Crib in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

‘The Journey of the Magi’ by TS Eliot

The visit of the Magi inspired one of the great poems by TS Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi.’ This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but was not published until 1930 in his Ariel Poems.

In some ways, this poem recalls ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), but also shows some influences of the earlier ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats.

However, unlike Yeats, Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 ‘Nativity Sermon’ of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester, who first summarised Anglicanism in the dictum ‘One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.’

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. He chooses an elderly speaker who is world-weary, reflective and sad. This narrator is a witness to momentous historical change who seeks to rise above that historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings. The speaker is agitated, his revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress, and he speaks to us, the readers, directly.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that ‘this was all folly.’

The poem picks up Eliot’s persistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of his journey, the surviving magus complains about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. He says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that ‘this was all folly.’ The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?


The birth of Christ was the death of the old religions. Now in his old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.

On their journey, the Magi see ‘three trees against a low sky’ – a vision of the future Crucifixion on Calvary. The Incarnation points to the Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The ‘running stream’ may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is also an Epiphany moment.

The ‘six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver’ recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, another Epiphany theme.

The early morning descent into a ‘temperate valley’ evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death?

He is a witness of historical change, but does he manage to rise above his historical moment?

With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings?

Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

TS Eliot was the greatest Anglican poet of the 20th century. In this poem, he links Christmas, Epiphany and the Easter story, links beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings, and so makes sense and meaning of the Christmas story at the beginning of this New Year.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Mikhail Damaskinos, ca 1585-1591, in the Museum of Christian Art in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

An Epiphany Carol:

‘We three kings of Orient,’ sometimes known as ‘The Quest of the Magi,’ is Hymn No 201 in the Irish Church Hymnal (5th edition), but it is not included in the New English Hymnal.

This carol ranks alongside ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by Bishop Phillips Brooks (ICH 174, NEH 32), among the best-known and popular American carols. But few people in Ireland realise that the author’s father was Irish-born and one of the bishops who played a pivotal role in the formation of the Anglican Communion.

‘We three kings of Orient are’ was written in 1859 by the Revd John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891). He was the Rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when he wrote this carol for a Christmas pageant in the General Theological Seminary, New York, although it did not appear in print for another six years.

The Revd John Henry Hopkins, jr, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 28 October 1820, the son of John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), an Irish-born Episcopal bishop who was the first Bishop of Vermont and later the eighth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Bishop John Henry Hopkins was born in Dublin on 22 or 30 January 1792, the son of Thomas Hopkins and his wife Elizabeth nee Fitzakerly.

The Hopkins family emigrated from Dublin in 1800 to Philadelphia. There he began his education at home with his mother, and he was reading Shakespeare before the age of nine. Elizabeth Hopkins established a school for girls in Trenton, New Jersey, and eventually sent her son to a Baptist boy’s school in Bordentown, and then to Princeton University.

Because of his family’s straitened circumstances, Hopkins took a job at a counting-house, although his mother always wanted him to become a lawyer. At that time Hopkins was not particularly religious and his parents’ marriage was troubled. When his mother moved to Frederick, Maryland, to establish another school, he remained in Philadelphia with his father and friends.

Hopkins decided to become an ironmaster and worked for an ironmasters in New Jersey and in Philadelphia before moving west to manage the ironworks at Bassenheim in Butler County.

James O’Hara, an Irish immigrant who became the wealthiest man in Pittsburgh and Quartermaster-General, employed Hopkins to run the ironworks in the Ligonier Valley. There Hopkins got to know the Muller family, descended from a long line of German Lutheran ministers, and, after a religious awakening, began studying the Bible and other books, including works by Quakers and Swedenborgians.

He travelled back to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to marry Caspar Muller’s daughter Melusina and they settled at Hermitage Furnace. However, the iron business failed, and Hopkins returned to Pittsburgh where he taught drawing and painting while studying law with a local lawyer. He was called to the bar in April 1819 and set up a legal practice in Pittsburgh.

John and Melusina attended the Presbyterian Church, but he was also the organist and choirmaster at Trinity Church, the local Episcopal Church. When the Rector of Trinity Church moved to New Jersey and the next priest proved inadequate, Hopkins applied to be accepted for the priesthood, planning to merge his ministerial and legal vocations after ordination.

In 1823, he was licensed as a lay reader by William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania, was ordained deacon on 14 December that year, and was ordained priest on 12 May 1824. He was placed in charge of Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, and from 1824 to1830, he was Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres in the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He read the works of the Church Fathers in the original Greek and Latin, and although in principle committed to high churchman liturgical practices he opposed the introduction of the Confessional to the Episcopal Church.

In 1827, he stepped back from the opportunity to become a coadjutor bishop to Bishop White, who was also the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He realised his own vote would have decided the election in his favour, and lost by one vote. Later he would tell his son that had he voted for himself he would have wondered for the rest of his life whether his will or God’s had been done.

In 1831, he accepted the charge of Trinity Church, Boston, where his great vision was to establish a diocesan seminary, although support for this plan never fully materialised.

In 1832, Hopkins was elected the first Bishop of Vermont, and was consecrated in Saint Paul’s Church, New York, on 31 October 1832. At the same time he became the Rector of Saint Paul’s, Burlington. While he was Bishop of Vermont, the Diocese faced financial depressions, mass migration from Vermont to the west which was opening up, personal bankruptcy, and controversies. He took a great interest in education and made economic sacrifices for its promotion. After 1856, he devoted his whole time to the care of the diocese.

Hopkins is credited with introducing Gothic architecture to the Episcopal Church, and was the architect of Trinity Church, Rutland, where he was the Rector from 1860 to 1861. In 1861, he published a pamphlet, A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, seen as an attempt to justify slavery based on the New Testament, and giving a clear insight into the Episcopal Church’s involvement in slavery. He argued that slavery was not a sin per se but an institution that was objectionable and should be abrogated by agreement.

His lifelong dream of a diocesan seminary was realised in 1860 with the opening of the Vermont Episcopal Institute at Rock Point on Lake Champlain, outside Burlington. He also served for a time as the Chancellor of the University of Vermont.

In January 1865, he was elected the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. That October, he presided at the general convention in Philadelphia. Largely through his friendship with Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia, the Presiding Bishop of the breakaway Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, the Northern and Southern branches of the Episcopal Church were reunited in 1866 after the end of the American Civil War. Subsequently, he presided in Christ Church, New Orleans at the consecration of Joseph Wilmer as Bishop of Louisiana, and in Louisville at the consecration of George David Cummins as Assistant Bishop of Kentucky.

His took a leading role in the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, bringing together all bishops in the Anglican Communion, and had suggested a similar assembly 18 years earlier in 1849.

He survived only two months after his return to Burlington in November 1867, and died of congestion of the lungs on 9 January 1868, at the age of 75. His funeral took place in Saint Paul’s Church, Burlington, and was buried in the cemetery at Rock Point. His monument was planned by his eldest son, the Revd John Henry Hopkins, the author of today’s carol.

John and Melusina Hopkins had 13 children. In 1866, most of their large family gathered at the family home at Rock Point to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary, and their daughter-in-law, Alice Leavenworth Hopkins, published a book to commemorate the event.

The University of Vermont and Harvard University hold many of the family papers. Most of his architectural legacy has been lost, including his Gothic Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington, which was destroyed by fire in 1972. However, Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church, in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, which was built in 1826, still survives.

The bishop’s son, the Revd John Henry Hopkins, jr, the author of this morning’s carol, was born on 28 October 1820, in Pittsburgh. He graduated from the University of Vermont with an AB in 1839, and received his master’s degree in 1845. For a while, he worked as a journalist before entering the General Theological Seminary, New York. After ordination, he was the seminary’s first music teacher (1855-1857), composed several hymns, and edited the Church Journal.

Hopkins wrote words and music for ‘We three kings of orient are’ as part of a Christmas pageant in 1859 when he was visiting his father’s home in Vermont, although it did not appear in print until his Carols, Hymns and Songs was published in New York in 1863.

While he was the rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (1876-1887), he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of President Ulysses S Grant in 1885. He died in Hudson, New York, on 14 August 1891 and is buried beside his father at Bishop’s House, Rock Point, Burlington, Vermont.

I first learned this hymn when I went carol singing with schoolfriends from Gormanston and Muckross as a teenager in Christmas 1968 and sang the part of the Third King who brings the gift of myrrh. This hymn is based on the story of the Visit of the Magi in Matthew 2: 1-12, which the Epiphany Gospel reading next Sunday.

Hopkins organised the carol so that three male voices would each sing a single verse by himself, in order to correspond with the three kings.

The first and last stanzas of the carol are sung together by all three as ‘verses of praise,’ while the intermediate stanzas are sung individually, with each king describing the gift he is bringing and revealing the sacramental nature of the gifts offered to the Christ Child. The refrain praises the beauty of the Star of Bethlehem.

This is the first Christmas carol from the US to win widespread popularity, and it was included in Bramley and Stainer’s Christmas Carols Old and New (London, 1871). In 1916, it was published in the hymnal for the Episcopal Church, which for the first time included a separate section for Christmas songs.

When it was included in the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), it was described as ‘one of the most successful of modern composed carols.’

The Adoration of the Magi … an image in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We three kings of Orient are by John Henry Hopkins

1, The kings:
We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar
field and fountain, moor and mountain
following yonder star:

O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding
guide us to thy perfect light!


2, First king:
Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
gold I bring to crown him again –
king forever, ceasing never
over us all to reign

Refrain

3, Second king:
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, gladly raising
worship him, God Most High:

Refrain

4, Third king:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes of life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb:

Refrain

5, The kings:
Glorious now, behold him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice!
Heav’n sings: alleluia, alle-
luia the earth replies:

Refrain

The Adoration of the Magi … a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Magi have arrived at the crib … an Epiphany scene in a family crib (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:
Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The Visit of the Magi at the Epiphany … the Vatican crib in Saint Peter’s Square, Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for this Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000) edited by Bishop Edward Darling include:

Isaiah 60: 1-6:

190, Brightest and best of the suns of the morning
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
192, How brightly beams the morning star
195, Lord, the light of your love is shining
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
199, The people that in darkness walked

Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15:

250, All hail the power of Jesu’s name
688, Come, bless the Lord, God of our forebears
353, Give to our God immortal praise
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
97, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
166, Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
140, The Lord will come and not be slow

Ephesians 3: 1-12:

642, Amazing grace (how sweet the sound!)
562, Blessèd assurance, Jesus is mine
11, Can we by searching find out God
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
481, God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year
522, In Christ there is no east or west
103, O Christ the same, through all our story’s pages
73, The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
112, There is a Redeemer

Matthew 2: 1-12:

147, Angels from the realms of glory
189, As with gladness men of old
190, Brightest and best of the suns of the morning
152, Come and join the celebration
194, Earth has many a noble city
162, In the bleak mid-winter
170, Love came down at Christmas
196, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
198, The first Nowell the angel did say
600, The wise may bring their learning
201, We three kings of Orient are
202, What child is this, who, laid to rest

Gold, myrrh and … an Epiphany cartoon

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Chalking the Doors: an Epiphany tradition

We introduced the Epiphany tradition of ‘Chalking the Doors’ at Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, at Epiphany 2018. I was first introduced to this Epiphany tradition when I was visiting Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge some years ago.

The formula for this traditional rite – adapted for Epiphany 2019 – is simple. Take chalk and write these letters and figures above the doors into the Church or the house: 20 + C + M + B + 19.

The letters have two meanings. Firstly, they represent the initials of the Three Wise Men or Magi – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – who came to visit the Christ Child in his first home.

Secondly, they also abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house.’

The ‘+’ figures signify the cross, and the figures ‘20’ at the beginning and ‘19’ at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a request for Christ to bless the building that has been marked, church or home, and that he may stay with those who worship or live there throughout the entire year.

The chalking of the doors is a centuries-old practice throughout the world, though it appears to be somewhat less well-known in Ireland. But it is an easy tradition to adopt, and a good symbol of dedicating the New Year to God from the beginning, asking his blessing on our homes and on all who live, work, or visit here.

The timing for chalking the doors varies from place to place. In some places, it happens on New Year’s Day. More commonly, though, it takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

In many places, the chalking takes place after the Epiphany Eucharist or Liturgy, and it can be carried out at any church, home or dwelling. Traditionally, the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can involve simply writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water.

After many Epiphany Masses, satchels of blessed chalk, incense, and containers of Epiphany water, blessed with special blessings for Epiphany, are distributed. These are then brought home and used to perform the ritual.

Another common practice is to save a few grains of the Epiphany incense until Easter, so that it can be burned along with the Easter candle.

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton

Prayer:

Leader (Priest or senior member of the family): Peace be to this house.

All: And to all who dwell herein.

Leader: Let us pray.

Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfilment of your holy law, the thanksgiving to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing, the initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk: 20 + C + M + B + 19.

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Another set of prayers and blessings:

Blessing the Chalk:

Priest: Our help is the name of the Lord:

All: The maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: The Lord shall watch over our going out and our coming in:

All: From this time forth for evermore.

Priest: 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 that we who use it in faith to write upon the door of our home the names of your holy ones Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, may receive health of body and protection of soul for all who dwell in or visit our home; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing the Home

Using the blessed chalk, mark the lintels of the doors as follows: 20 + C + M + B + 19, while saying:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star of God’s Son who became human two thousand and nineteen years ago. May Christ bless our home and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Then this prayer:

Visit, O blessed Lord, this home with the gladness of your presence. Bless all who live or visit here with the gift of your love; and grant that we may manifest your love to each other and to all whose lives we touch. May we grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of you; guide, comfort, and strengthen us in peace, O Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

Continuing the tradition

Traditions like the Epiphany chalking of the doors serve as outward signs of our dedication to Christ, marked by daily prayer, reading, work and in our daily lives.

Seeing the symbols over the doors can be a reminder, going in and going out on our daily routines, that our homes and all those who dwell there belong to Christ.

In time, the chalk will fade. As it does, we can think of the meaning of the symbols written sinking into the depths of our hearts and being manifest in our words and actions.

Christus mansionem benedictat.

May Christ bless the house.

Epiphany chalking at Westcott House, Cambridge, a few years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org