blessing, Epiphany, feasts and seasons, liturgical year, prayer, tradition

Bless This House

Today is Epiphany Sunday, a day on which Christians celebrate the coming of the Magi (or the Kings, or the Wise Men, depending on your tradition) to visit Baby Jesus and bring him gifts.

As the story goes, there were Three Kings from “The East.” (The Biblical narrative never specifies how many there were, but tradition says three.) They were astrologers who noticed the presence of a new star in the sky and headed out to find the new king that its appearance signified. SuperSam and his dad saw a planetarium show recently about the star, and he has been telling us ever since that “actually, it wasn’t a star, really, it was most likely Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction.”

Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction. Photo by SuperSam.

(Note to my friend Julia: he may end up with that space station chaplain job yet.)

Anyway, they saw the star, and they came (riding camels?) with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These have symbolic significance but seem like less-than-stellar baby gifts, if you ask me. (A friend of mine jokes that if the kings had been mothers themselves, they would have brought diapers and wipes.)

Many people exchange gifts on Epiphany as they remember the legendary gifts of the Kings. In some cultures, children are visited by the Kings, who leave them presents. It’s also customary to have a Three Kings cake, with a bean or other small object representing the Baby Jesus hidden inside before baking. (The person who finds the “baby” wins a prize.) Some friends of ours host a party each year on Epiphany at which they dispose of the greens from Christmas (trees, wreaths, etc.) with a big bonfire, serve hot spiced cider, and enjoy time with friends.

Epiphany wasn’t a big deal for us growing up. I think I was in high school before I learned that the Kings in the story of the Nativity didn’t show up at the same time as the shepherds and everyone else, right on Christmas Night. It has been fun to learn more about the many traditions associated with this day and choose which ones we would like to incorporate into our family’s celebration.

This year, we are doing a house blessing for Epiphany. This is an old custom dating back to the Middle Ages. Although today it is more familiar in some European countries than in the United States, I have seen many references to it recently. A friend of ours who is a pastor of two local congregations even posted a picture on facebook of the blessing he did at the volunteer fire department. We decided that blessing our house was a great way to start off the new year.

What’s the point of blessing our house? Well, we believe that God is present in all things. As I wrote earlier this Christmas season, the holy happens right in the middle of the mundane. Our home is the center of our life together. We are blessing our home to remind ourselves that the ordinary things that happen here are ways of expressing love, serving each other, and serving God. Asking God’s blessing on our home and family reminds us that we should keep Christ in the middle of all of it…the toddler tantrums, the piles of laundry, the meals we share at our table, the guests we receive, and the conversations we share. (And the sweeping, of course.) Blessing the house at Epiphany is especially appropriate. Since this feast celebrates the coming of the Light (and the star that the Kings followed to find Jesus), we ask the Light to fill our home and our hearts in the coming year so that we can share the Light with others around us.

The particular words used in a house blessing are not set in stone- you can borrow a blessing that has already been written or create your own. Traditionally, the blessing is said as you mark the lintels of your door with this inscription: 20 + C + M + B + 13. The 2013 is the year, which enfolds the initials of the traditional names of the Three Kings: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. (For a fun musical explanation about who each of these guys were, check out this song by the De Paur Singers. The video isn’t great, but you can’t beat the song.) The “CMB” also stands for the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which means, “Christ Bless This House.”

Here is the blessing we used…we decided to combine some resources.

Leader: We ask your blessing upon this house. Fill it and each of us who live here with your light.
(Here, someone should write the inscription above the door.)
Other family member: Christus mansionem benedicat…may Christ bless this house.
Leader: 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 Lord, forever and ever. Amen. *
All together: Christ, in our coming and in our leaving, the Door and the Keeper; for us and our dear ones, this day and every day, blessing for always. Amen. **

We closed by marking the door with the sign of the cross.

If this practice is new to you, you might be interested to know that it is found in many different Christian traditions. (Read: This is not just for Catholics.) It seems to be more common in the “high church” traditions, but there’s no reason why any of you can’t bless a house for the new year if you want. Liturgy and ancient Christian practices belong to all Christians, regardless of denomination.

As we mark our door with this inscription this year, I am thinking of God commanding his people to mark their doorposts with the Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Michael K. Marsh, an Episcopal priest in West Texas who writes at Interrupting the Silence, mentions this in his blog (which, incidentally, makes me feel great for having thought of it!). He also says:

“Chalking the door” is a way to celebrate and literally mark the occasion of the Epiphany and God’s blessing of our lives and home. With time the chalk will fade. As it does we let the meaning of the symbols written sink into the depths of our heart and be manifest in our words and actions.

Blessing a house (or anything, really) is not superstitious. We don’t expect our chalk markings and spoken words to protect us from anything. Instead, it is a practice of setting our home (and our life inside it) apart for a special purpose. It’s a recognition of the truth that God is already here. It is a choice to be intentional about seeking Love by inviting its presence in our daily lives. Do you have to bless your house? Of course not. We choose to bless our home this year to remind ourselves and each other that God is in our midst, that the ordinary times and activities we share are sacred, and that we should treat each other as we would treat Christ.

Here are some resources about house blessings from around the internet, several with blessings that you can use if you don’t want to come up with your own words:

Epiphany House Blessing with chalk from Interrupting the Silence
Epiphany House Blessing from Catholic Icing
Blessing the Home on Epiphany from Catholic Culture
Epiphany Chalk House Blessing from Liturgy (an ecumenical resource)
Blessing of the Home and Household on Epiphany from US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Many people bless the chalk they use to write the inscription (to set it apart for this purpose) or ask their priest to do it for them. Apparently, this is more common in some communities than others. If you ask your priest to bless your chalk and he looks at you oddly, you can feel free to share this post with him.

Have you ever heard of this tradition? Do you observe it in your family? If you do, I’d love to know about other variations or ways of doing it…and if you decide to try it,  please let me know how it goes!


**from Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community (p. 150, Blessing At a Door) 
Christmas, feasts and seasons, tradition

Happy Twelfth Night.

Tonight is Twelfth Night, the last night of Christmas. Tomorrow we will celebrate Epiphany, which commemorates the arrival of the Magi or The Kings (depending on your preference, I guess) to visit the Baby Jesus and bring him gifts. 
I’m feeling a little reluctant to be done with Christmas. I’ll miss the new traditions we have started and the rituals we have been celebrating. (I’m also going to miss the cookies…we finished them up today.) It has been so much fun to do Christmas this year, with our children old enough to enjoy so much of what is happening. There were some things we never got around to doing, obviously. There is always more you can cram into your family celebrations, especially at this time of year. We observed Christmas fully and well, though- we enjoyed each other, created new traditions as a family, and celebrated the birth of Christ. As my grandma would say, we done good.
One thing that was left undone as of this evening was the finding of our special ornament. The year we were married, George and I acquired a glass pickle and have taken turns hiding it in the tree for each other to find every year since then. The finder of the pickle is entitled to a treat of his or her choice. This is the first year that SuperSam is old enough to participate. I hid the pickle when we put up our tree weeks ago, but it had not yet been discovered. 
We told SuperSam at dinner that tonight was his last chance to find the pickle before the tree comes down tomorrow. 
Announcing that he planned to eat a candy cane as soon as he located the pickle, SuperSam stuck his head into the tree branches and started looking. It took a boost up from his dad for him to be able to see the pickle…but eventually, he found it!
(And yes, he ate a candy cane, even though he was about to go to bed. We did brush his teeth very well.)
Merry Christmas to each of you and a happy new year. May this coming year be full of light and goodness for you and your families. Thanks for sharing this past year with us. 
Advent, feasts and seasons, liturgical year, saint celebrations, St. Lucy, The Bug, tradition

St. Lucy Day from a can

 This is our second St. Lucy Day as a family of 5. Since we have a Lucy (our oldest daughter, otherwise known as The Bug), we feel we ought to mark the occasion. Lucy may only be older by 40 minutes, but she believes it still counts…you can just tell when you talk with her.

Last year, we said, “Oh, it’s St Lucy Day. We should probably do something.” The Sisters were not quite 3 months old. Our celebration last year consisted of changing lots of diapers, rocking and nursing. Those things took all day. There simply wasn’t time for anything else.

This year, we have (a little) more time, and I fully intended to do something for St. Lucy Day.
Unfortunately, it fell the day after the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which we celebrated. I had planned to make the special St. Lucy bread and have it in the morning. When that didn’t happen, I thought I’d make it during nap time and have it with soup for dinner.

It turns out, though, that this year I’m the kind of mom who chooses to go for a 5 mile run (on the treadmill) during nap time instead of baking special St. Lucy bread for my daughter’s name saint day. I suspect (okay, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt) that my family had a better evening because of my 5 miler than they would have if I had made the bread, no matter how well it turned out. Every mother runner (and probably her husband and children) knows that Grouchy Mommy in the morning + run at naptime = Better, Happier Mommy in the evening. Grouchy Mommy baking bread…well, that’s not quite as predictable.

So, no special St. Lucy bread this year. Although we’ve come a long way in a year, time is still so limited. As you all know, I have my hands full. I know many of you do, too.

Instead of soup and special bread last night, we spontaneously put everyone in pajamas, hopped in the car, went through the drive-thru at McDonald’s, and ate in the car while we drove around town looking at Christmas lights. We ended up outside of town in Shenandoah National Park to catch sight of a few of the Geminids in the hours before the meteor shower peaked, then came home and put everyone to bed a little later than usual.

The nicest thing about family traditions, particularly when you are trying to start them, is that they are flexible. They can be adapted to suit the situation in which you find yourself. I am a devout observer of traditions. I am not a fan, however, of rigidity. I grew up in a blended family with stepsiblings who were not always with us on the calendar date of major holidays. Sometimes we celebrated a day before everyone else we knew and sometimes a day after. My mom’s favorite phrase during these times was, “We’ll just need to play it by ear.” I remember all of us skating around the neighborhood in our brand new rollerblades, telling our confused neighbors that Santa had already been to our house when Christmas was still two days away. We were flexible…and it was fine. It all turned out okay.

Things change, and our traditions need to be able to change, too. Traditions are only as good as they make us feel, and if we stress ourselves out and get all weepy over how things aren’t going the way we wanted them to, the tradition is serving itself instead of our families. That’s not good for anyone.

So, with yesterday having come and gone with no St. Lucy festivities, we celebrated St. Lucy quickly this morning at breakfast, and we did it in a way that worked for us this year. I made a can of cinnamon rolls (the bake fast method, where you spread them out on the cookie sheet – it took less than 10 minutes). We stuck some leftover birthday candles in them and lit them. I quickly made a wreath for Lucy’s head out of pipe cleaners and put some more candles in that. (I did not light them.)

Throw in some smiley kids, and there you have it –
Instant celebration.

See those faces? This is what it looks like when you build traditions from the ground up. It’s not always perfect, it’s not always Pinterest-ing…but it is always worth doing, anyway. We’re building a foundation for our families, for our children. We’re laying the groundwork for memories and celebrations in years to come. It is enough just to start something, even if it’s something out of a can instead of from scratch.
A happy St. Lucy Day to all of you- a day late and slightly imperfect, but still just as meaningful.