I confess that until recently I had never heard of the ancient Christian custom of chalking the door. (Some say it began in Bavaria.) This custom is an Epiphanytide tradition that is either celebrated on the eve of Epiphany, or on the Sunday of Epiphany (today). The purpose is to bless one’s home. The tradition is still practiced by many Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics, as well as other similar traditions. The practice is to chalk one’s door with a pattern such as 20 τ C τ M τ B τ 18, where the numbers refer to the year 2018 in this instance. The four crosses (I have used a Greek letter τ (tau) since my keyboard did not offer me the “cross” style as a choice) are combined with the letters C, M and B. These Latin letters C, M and B refer to the three magi: traditionally known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. But these three letters are also the Latin abbreviation for the words: Lord bless this house!
In some contexts the minister will pray over chalk in the liturgy and then the people take the chalk home to mark their doors in a family ceremony. This custom has a biblical foundation in the story of Israel. You will recall that they marked the door to their home during the passover in Egypt so that they would be saved from death.
There are at least two ways this custom has been understood by churches. It is a liturgical practice that serves to protect Christian homes from evil spirit beings until the next Epiphany Day, at which time the custom is repeated. Families also perform this act because it represents the hospitality of the family of Jesus to the Magi (and ultimately to all Gentiles). Thus we mark our homes so that we too will be hospitable to others.
The chalking thus serves as a special house blessing which invites God’s presence into one’s home.
When I was a young boy my parents bought a new family home, only about three blocks from my first home. I have a lasting impression of them inviting guests into our home on a Sunday evening for a “blessing of the home.” (Anita and I did this in our first home because of my parents model to us.) There was music, food, a brief message and some prayers. I think I was about five, maybe just six, years old. I remember this like it was yesterday. I always thought of our home as a special place, a gift from God and a place of safety and gospel grace. My parents lived this faith and all were welcome at 709 Westwood Drive, both black and white. (My home was the deep South, in the pre-Civil Rights era. I knew of no other home so open to all people!)
I think of all the nations that have come to the shores of America, just during my own lifetime. America has generally been a land of openness with a warm welcome for all who come to our shores. (Our laws regarding immigration and refugees have changed, sometimes radically, but generally we have been both welcoming and tolerant to newcomers.) We should remember at this Epiphany that all of us in this great land came from somewhere else, unless of course we are Native Americans. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Chalking our homes this year (even if only in reading about the service in a post like this one) might remind us of this fact and then address our anger at others we do not know or innately fear. What kind of welcome are the followers of Jesus Christ giving to the various peoples who come here? Have we adopted an angry and deeply political response or are we open and generous to others not like us?
On this Epiphany let us pray for the attitude of Mary and Joseph who welcomed strangers to the celebration of Jesus’ birth.