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Don’t Forget to Chalk Your Doors for Epiphany

Why chalk your doorway to celebrate the Epiphany? The answer lies in understanding what this holy season is all about.

Epiphany is the second major festival of the larger Christmas season, and in the Latin Church, its observation gives principal attention to the visitation of the magi. In fact, some missals subtitle it “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” But long tradition also associates the Epiphany with two other events: the baptism of the Lord, which this year gets shuffled to Monday, as well as the miracle of water turned to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, which we don’t get to hear about on Sunday this year. It used to be we would hear this every year, but the lectionary-revisers in the 1970s decided we should hear about the wedding at Cana only once every three years (to which I say, Boo, everybody likes that story—but praise God I’m not in charge of making lectionaries).

The combination of these three mysteries is, in any case, beautiful. You can see right away how they connect with one another, how they are all “epiphanies” in some way. To the magi, Christ is revealed as Lord not just of Israel, but of all the nations—what old Simeon, in the Temple, had already proclaimed in his Nunc dimittis—“to be a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” Surely, as Mary “ponders all these things in her heart,” this particular statement would have come to mind as the wise men arrived. At the Baptism, which comes at the beginning of our Lord’s public ministry, the epiphany is nothing less than the revelation of Christ’s relationship with the Father and the Spirit. It is also, in the most literal way, the moment he comes on the scene and becomes a figure of interest to the public. Not too long thereafter, the wedding at Cana is a revelation not just of his power over created things, but of his love for created things—a man who turns water into wine at a wedding party, at the request of his mother, is not some otherworldly distant figure, but someone who can be known.

The speed with which the Church moves from Christmas to Epiphany is worth noting. As we observed at Christmas, this child is born not just to give everyone some kind of transient feeling of cheer and goodwill. The joy that he brings is a joy that lasts through pain and suffering, that transforms the whole of life through his death on the cross.

Each of these seasons has its sense in relation to the others. Christmas would be meaningless without Easter, but Easter would be incoherent without Christmas. And neither Christmas nor Easter would make any sense if we didn’t, through the Epiphany season, come to understand just who this Jesus is.

And who is Jesus, according to the story of the magi? The gifts give things away, as the verses of “We Three Kings” tell us. Gold for a king. Frankincense for God. Myrrh for death.

Gold, frankincense, myrrh. Strange gifts, really. As Catholics, we’ve heard over and over again that Jesus is God, that he died on the cross, and that he is the king of kings and the lord of lords. But this is one of those combinations that’s worth trying to imagine from the perspective of someone seeing and hearing it the first time. We have a child—a child whose birth was announced by a star. And somehow he will be a king, be divine, and die. How exactly do these things go together?

We don’t know very much about the wise men. Tradition gives us their names—Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar—but not anything certain about where they were from or what they believed. We venerate them as saints—in a way, the feast of the Epiphany is also their feast day—and the reason is that the Epiphany isn’t so much about Christ revealing himself to them as them revealing Christ to the world. Christ is made manifest to the gentiles not because he shows himself to the gentiles, but because the gentiles find him and state in the best way that they can—in the language of gifts—who he is.

One Epiphany tradition is the blessing of chalk for the “chalking” of the doors. (Here’s how to do it.) Feel free to go around the neighborhood and offer to chalk the houses of others. That may be the most low-pressure street evangelism you can imagine—a great opportunity to Make Catholicism Weird Again. Here is why we do this, and why it makes sense at Epiphany. The function of the wise men isn’t just to find him; it is to reveal him—granted, maybe not to Herod, but definitely to the gentiles. And even, in a certain way, to Mary and Joseph. They know who he is, of course, but even they must find in these gifts a powerful confirmation and witness.

Our job as Christians isn’t merely to find and worship Jesus. It is to offer him the kinds of gifts and worship that reveal him to the world. This is part of what we do in the sacred liturgy—because this is not the kind of gift that would make sense to anyone who is not God. But, like the Epiphany chalk, there’s a public nature to this offering. Even if the wise men hide the location of Jesus from Herod, they still tell Herod exactly what they’re doing. It’s reasonable to imagine them showing him the gifts they intend to give—all the more reason for Herod to quake with confusion and fear, as do the Herods of today. Who is this child?

That is the question we ought to hear from the secular world—and I’m convinced that we will hear it more often the more faithful we are to the gospel. Not “Whom did they vote for?” or “What cause are they supporting?” or even “What do they believe?”, but “Who is this child? Why do they worship him? Why do they act like that?” Because in the mystery of the word made flesh, there’s nothing to do but to go even unto Bethlehem—like the shepherds, like the magi—and see this thing which has come to pass.

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