In many parts of the world it is the custom today, the feast of the Epiphany, for adults and children to dress up as the Magi (the photo in our Newsletter shows an Epiphany procession in Poland). The rich symbolism of the story in Matthew’s gospel of the coming of the Magi to the newborn Jesus has over the centuries prompted many such popular customs – such as the Epiphany house blessing (details following), the French tart known as the galette des rois, the solemn proclamation at Mass of the dates of Easter and other moveable feasts, blessings of water and the seas, and so on. Sadly in countries like ours where the practice of Christianity has declined so much, people know little or nothing of these Epiphany customs; indeed many people can’t even be bothered to keep up their decorations for the whole of the twelve days of Christmas.
The rich symbolism of the story focuses on the Magi – in the ancient world, as now, astrologers were seen as ambivalent figures, pointing to both good and evil. People treated them with respect, but were also suspicious of them. Matthew’s story is thought to be based partly on that of the astrologer Baalam in the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24); the symbolism is important as Matthew’s gospel was written primarily for Christians from a Jewish background, and the author wants them to understand that the presence of non-Jews in their community was, as one biblical scholar has put it, ‘the continuity and fulfillment of a plan of salvation for those from afar to be accomplished through the Messiah and Israel.’ This message remains true for all of us on this great feast: the Christian religion is for all people; it can never be the preserve of one group. We are the Church of all nations and this determines how we look at the world, especially when there are so many divisions and worsening barriers.
The symbolism of the Epiphany story – the gold, frankincense and myrrh, and the subsequent traditions of the number of the Magi, their being made into kings, given names and often imaginative histories – these all speak to us of God’s glory and divinity which we see in the baby Jesus revealed to us, of his kingship (shown by the gifts of gold and frankincense; also the third gift of myrrh points to the Lord’s burial in the tomb. These are religious and political messages which demand commitment of committed Christians: perhaps that’s why Epiphany these days means little to those who don’t go to Church. But our celebration of God’s glory revealed to all the nations from the manger should redouble our efforts, at the beginning of a new calendar year, to share this joyful message with others.
TRADITIONAL EPIPHANY HOUSE BLESSING
For some years now parishioners of Beckenham have kept this custom, popular in Germany and Eastern Europe. Blessed chalk is available at all Masses – you mark the wall or lintel near your front door with the chalk as follows:
20 + C + M + B + 19
The letters represent the names of the Magi in some traditions, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar
LONDON CATHOLIC WORKER COMMUNITY
You were particularly generous in the gifts brought for the community near Finsbury Park at the beginning of December – many thanks. The community has sent us a thank you / Christmas card, together with a photograph, which is on the notice board in the porch. The community which we support is currently looking for volunteers to come and live with them in the community to support the guests who are destitute asylum seekers and refugees.
For more details visit their website.