Blessed be the chalk!

Epiphany ChalkYesterday Natalie wrote a little recalling some Epiphany posts of the past. It sparked me to review some ideas and practices for the liturgical feast.  Today Epiphany is celebrated at the mass on the Sunday between January 2 and 6, but the actual feast day is the 6th (or the 5th if you stick to the strict Julian calendar dates of old- but that’s a whole other post).  The feast combines the major points that showed the new baby Jesus being recognized as man and God’s flesh on earth- the adoration of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, and the 1st miracle of the wedding feast in Cana.  The importance and level of recognition of the feast varies around the world today.  It is relatively unnoticed in the US but continues to be a national holiday in places like Finland, where all but a few essential services are closed.  Traditions of the day include activities like the baking of the king’s cake, community carols, and gifts for the children to represent the gifts of the Magi. Did you remember to replace your shepherds with the wise men in your nativity scene?

The formal mass for the feast includes the blessing of the gifts the Magi brought- the gold, the Frankincense, and the myrrh.  Also blessed is sone epiphany water and some chalk. Chalk? That’s right chalk.  The chalk is blessed with the prayer: “Bless, O Lord God, this creature chalk to render it helpful to men. Grant that they who use it in faith and with it inscribe upon the entrance of their homes the names of thy saints, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession enjoy health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord.”

Epiphany Chalk 2At the end of mass people take some of the epiphany water and the chalk home.  The water is used to bless the rooms of the house for the new year.  The chalk is used to bless the house.  To do the blessing the chalk is used to write above the door to the house like this 20 C + M + B 15.  The 20 signifies the millennium and century and the 15 the decade and year.  The C, M, and B are the initials of the Magi- Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar but also represent the blessing “Christus mansionem benedicat”- Christ bless this house.  The blessing remains above the entryway until Pentecost (May 24th).  As an added little challenge, tradition holds that the first time any enter through the door they should step first with the right foot- maybe the origin of the phrase “starting out on the right foot”.

Epiphany ChalkI didn’t make it mass to get chalk last Sunday but it’s ok for the “father of the house” to do a blessing as the note is made above the door: “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 fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.”  A blessed and happy new year to you all!

Twelfth Night and Epiphany Jeopardy!

IMG_8760On this day in January 2013, Jeremy wrote about the ancient tradition of Twelfth Night, the night before the Feast of the Epiphany. I thought I knew everything there is to know about the Epiphany—but I was wrong—so wrong.

For his religious education family group on Sunday, my brother made a Jeopardy! game about all things related to the Epiphany. We took his test—and failed miserably.

The first problem was coming up with the names of the three kings. I defaulted to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, knowing I was very wrong, but there were three names, and they are figures in the Bible. I couldn’t conjure up Melchior, Casper (or Gaspar) and Balthazar. The pressure of the timed moment was just too great—even with the hint that one of them sounded like a “friendly ghost.”  This CNN iReport describes the Lithuanian celebration of the three kings.  (Another future post, for certain.)

I completely failed on the three gifts. I could name them, sure. But I forgot the spiritual purpose of each one, especially myrrh. Later, I spent some time reading about each of the gifts and how they relate to the recognition of the divinity of the baby Jesus.

My brother asked about the Massacre of the Innocents and the names of ancient kings. The only answer I was sure of was “Egypt” (where Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled).

Although, Roger and I earned an imaginary $1800, it was a struggle. I will be re-visiting some of the major points of the Nativity story this year. Be prepared for Epiphany Jeopardy! rematch.

“The Writer’s Almanac” today featured a description of Twelfth Night in the early American Colonial period.

This month marks the third year of The Yule Log 365, and I feel like I have so much to learn.


Podcast #52- 293 Days to Go!

Pope-ChristmasPodcast #52- Click here to listen to this week’s podcast- Papal Christmas Connections

Natalie & Jeremy are finally back at it!  This wee our discussion centers on the Pope, Vatican City, and Christmas.  LIsten as we discuss all the Papal Christmas facts you need to KNOW.  We also speak a little on making sure you get right to it in this weeks snow for something to DO and PLAN now to plant your holly to have it ready for Christmas 2013.  We get back to regular posts for March too- remember Natalie has days ending in 3 or 8 and Jeremy has the days ending in 5 or 0.  Merry Christmas!!

On the 12th Day of Christmas…

12th nightOn the 12th Day of Christmas, Christmas is over. Finished. Done. Complete. Today is Twelfth Night, the final day of the twelve days of Christmas. This is the night before epiphany and signals the end of the season. The earliest origins of Twelfth Night can be found in ancient Rome. It was a festival and celebration to end the winter solstice festivals and begin the long stretch of winter. The more modern practices go back to Medieval England. Twelfth Night was a night of celebration to mark the end fo the season. There was much music and dancing and a large feast. The feast would have a king and queen crowned to preside over the festivities. A plum cake was served with a bean and a pea baked into it. The man who found the bean was named the king and the woman who found the pea was named the queen. If a woman found the bean she got to be queen and named her own king. These festivals were lots of fun- nights of pranks, costumes, and role reversals. A kind of free-for-all with no rules and wild abandon. In some towns large groups with blackened faces would roam the streets causing a loud uproar to chase away and bad spirits. These traditions carried over to the new world and colonial America saw similar festivals and feasts, and many formal balls. These large Twelfth Night balls were particularly popular in the south. Even President Washington and his wife Martha hosted huge annual parties. This might also be because January 5th was their wedding anniversary! By the mid-1800s the emphasis on Twelfth Night had dwindled and large Christmas Day celebrations had become the new trend.

WassailSome other holiday tradition are also connected to Twelfth Night. Wassail was connected with the night as part of the festivities to place a good blessing on the orchards. A mix of cider and ale was made and then taken to the orchard groves. Singing and merriment would move to the trees and the mixture was poured on the roots to ensure a good crop of apples the following fall. The fire of the yule log would be extinguished on Twelfth Night. This log was lit and kept burning through the whole season and extinguished on this night. The remains would be kept to be used to light the next log the following year. Twelfth night is not just an ending but a beginning too. It signals the start of the carnival season the will continue through Mardi Gras and end on Ash Wednesday. So much more on the 12th day of Christmas than those drummers drumming!

Make it about Family

Holy FamilyToday was the Feast of the Holy Family.  Well, if you are a regular mass-attending Roman Catholic this wasn’t news to you.  The Sunday between Christmas and Epiphany is designated as a celebration of the Holy Family and all families.  The readings and the lessons today at mass all focused on the family.  The role of father and mother and the relationship to children.  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were a special and different family for sure.  You might say the original blended family.  The gospel today was about when Mary and Joseph were unable to find the young boy Jesus, who went missing for three days.  They found him, of course, and he had been at his Father’s house.  In his homily Father Kevin talked a great deal about what it means to be a family.  There is no such thing as a perfect family.  Even the Holy Family wasn’t perfect (think about it- a child born out of the wedded relationship, a step-father, an independent child who listened to his own voice).  As families we disagree and argue, find fault with one another, and are most harsh with those we love.  Why?  Because we can be.  We know that family will always be there, they have to.  They are always there, and sometimes we need to take some time apart to be sure we can always love one another fully.

This idea of time apart might seem real appealing to many families right now.  Following the holiday season and a week likely full of meals, visits, and parties with close and extended family you might be thinking of a little solitude.  That’s fine.  Hopefully your holiday was enriched and made better by the time together.  But after a little solitude when will you see your family next?  Will it not be until the holidays in 2013.  Maybe there’s a special anniversary or wedding planned this year.  Perhaps there will be an unexpected illness or funeral to bring family together.  Beyond these types of instances will you be with family this year?  Do you have plans to share, gather, and enjoy one another’s company?  Over and over, the time spent with family and friends is named as the best part of the holiday season.  Why do we not have that same joy throughout the year?  As we wrap up 2012 and lay out our plans and goals for 2013 let’s all try to make family a greater part of what we do for the new year.  Challenge yourself and your family to find ways to connect more regularly.  Think of ways to bring people together, just to be together.  Reach out to family who may have grown distant in recent, or not so recent, years.  Share the stories, traditions, and history of the family with younger members.  Really try to be a holy family all your own!  J, M, J.

The Star of Bethlehem

Star of B2This week we have moved our podcast day to Tuesday.  This is so we can record it at the Earth & Space Science Lab here in Frederick.  We are going to the planetarium show, Mystery of the Christmas Star.  The show description states “Journey back over 2000 years to Bethlehem as we seek to discover a scientific explanation for the star the wise men followed to find the baby Jesus. This modern retelling of the Christmas story is sure to charm and captivate audiences of all ages”.  We are excited to see the show but I thought it might be smart to get a little studying in before the presentation.  I like to have some background information to better enjoy the show.

All of us are familiar with the story of the Star of Bethlehem.  The tale is told through the Gospel of Matthew.  The Star revealed to the Magi the location of the baby Jesus.  The story has been expanded over time to become the center of Christmas celebrations.  The star led those wise men to the manger in Bethlehem where they presented their gifts to the Messiah.  The guiding Star was in the East.  We often see the Star in representations of the Nativity scene, described in the Gospel of Luke.  Curiously the nativity scene is not mentioned in Matthew and the Star is not mentioned in Luke.  Many Christians connect the Star of Bethlehem with the Star Prophecy found in the Book of Numbers.  Christians view and accept the Star as the work of God announcing the arrival of his son, born of Mary, in the town of Bethlehem.  There are some Christian groups that have specific thoughts/views about the Star.  Eastern Orthodox believers know that the Star was a supernatural event that sent an Angel to announce the news.  Mormons see it as an astronomical event that allowed all the world to see the light of God, a symbol of the light he was bringing to the world with the birth of Jesus.  Seventh Day Adventists know the Star was a collection of Angels the lingered after God’s presence.  Jehovah’s Witnesses take a different view on the Star, seen as a product of Satan- leading the Magi to Herod and resulting in his plan to kill the male children in the kingdom.

Star of BThe scientific explanations of the Star of Bethlehem are many.  Since the first telling of the story there have been attempts to explain the star’s appearance using science.  Great attention was given to showing the star was an actual astronomical event.  In 1614 Kepler claimed it was the result of a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn.  He thought it created a supernova, a theory later disproved).  Others have offered that it might be a comet, maybe even Halley’s Comet.  Chinese astronomers tracked a comet at the time that stayed in the sky with no movement for 70 days.  It was written that it was “hanging over” a city somewhere.  It has even been claimed it was a supernova from the Andromeda Galaxy.   Early translations had the “wise men” as astrologers.  This was altered over time since the early church saw astrology as blasphemy.  Needless to say there is much discussion about the origin and reality of the Star.  A simple Google search will start you on the path of you own exploration.  We’re excited to see what we learn at the planetarium show.  No worries, we’ll be sure to share our new knowledge with all of you!


Saint Francis Xavier, One of the Christmas Saints

Today I decided to do a little reading to find out more about the Saints related to Christmas.  Of course I found most things to be written about the most well-known: St. Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Nicholas.  As I read more and looked to less familiar sites online, I discovered some writings about the “Christmas Saints”.  These are the main Saints with feast days during the advent season.  There are saints for almost every day in the Catholic calendar, but only the “major” saints are considered Christmas Saints.  AS best I can tell, their feasts are celebrated during advent in part because of the important work of these faithful servants.  For today I picked one to find out a little more about, Saint Francis Xavier.

Saint Francis was born in 1506 in Navarre, part of modern-day Spain.  He was the son of an aristocratic family, but much of their wealth and stature was lost when his father died and the Catholic Spanish forces invaded Navarre.  Francis moved to Paris to study and was ready to become an academic as his family had planned.  Instead, he joined with a new friend to devout his life to missionary work.  He was good friends with Ignatius of Loyola and with 5 others they would form the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. In Paris on Montmartre they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  From France he would move first to Venice and then on to Lisbon.  There he would begin his real life’s work as a missionary.  He took out to bring the word to the Peoples of Asia and those Portuguese living in the empire.  He based his work in India and preached to the poorest of the poor.  He lived among them and shared their food and housing.  Much of his work was with lepers and the very sick.  His work moved him into Malaysia and then Japan.  In Japan he would convert the first Japanese Christian.  From Japan he planned to move into mainland China.  Unfortunately he caught fever and died before making the journey.  Saint Francis is said to have converted the most people to Christianity since Saint Paul.  His work with the masses was heavily partnered with music.  Francis put the verses of study to local music to help the indigenous people hear the message.

“What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16:26)  These words from Jesus are believed to be the ones that caused Saint Francis to devote his life to faithful mission work.  He is included as one of the Christmas Saints because of his tireless efforts to show all people the joy we receive with the arrival of the baby Jesus.  He led a life of pure sacrifice.  Sacrifice is leaving yourself behind at times for a greater good, the good of prayer, the good of helping someone in need, the good of just listening to another. The greatest gift we have is our time. Francis gave his to others.  Pray for his intercession during the advent season if you want your time spent in advent to bear fruit long beyond the season.  He is the patron saint of Japan and of all missionaries.

St. Francis

Advent Wreaths

Natalie and I have been discussing, and I do believe wishing for the arrival of, Advent.  We’ve been talking a good bit about the coming of the period focused on preparation for the arrival of the baby Jesus.  The term Advent comes from the latin, meaning “coming”.  Something good is coming!  Advent is the liturgical equivalent to the sales at the malls.   Everything at church is exciting in the Advent season.  All the songs and readings are about the coming joy.  I really love this time at mass.  One of the big components of the Advent experience is the lighting of the advent wreath.  The wreath is a great part of our sacred celebrations of the holidays.  I think it’s great that the advent wreath is part of the services at churches AND can be part of your family celebrations at home.  But when did we all start lighting up these candles on a wreath to prep for Christmas?

The wreath may trace its origins back to pre-Christian Europe.  The circular wreath of evergreens was most likely a symbol of the cycles of the seasons.  The wreath might have crept into church practice as Christianity spread through the pagan practices in Europe.  The modern origins go back to the 1830s in Germany.  A Lutheran pastor created a wreath with 23 candles used to mark the time to Christmas.  There were red candles for the weekdays and white for the Sundays.  The wreath idea caught on across the continent and soon the wreaths had been modified to include 4 candles for the Sundays of advent and an optional 5th candle for Christmas.  By the 1920s the German Roman Catholics started to use the wreaths.  The practices spread to North America in the 1930s and today almost all of Western Christianity uses some type of Advent Wreath.

Today’s wreaths are a horizontal wreath of evergreens.  This might include laurel, pine, holly, cedar, and/or yew.  The evergreens serve as a sign of continual life.  The candles might vary in color based on religious or personal practice.  Most Protestant churches use 4 red candles and 1 white.  Roman Catholics use 3 violet candles and 1 rose candle.  The rose candle is for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (Halfway!!).  The third Sunday is known as Gaudete, or Rejoice, Sunday.  I am counting the days until I get to light my first candle (50 days to go).

Today is May Day!

Girls dancing around a pole, singing, dancing and wearing flowers in their hair.  That’s May Day right?  Or maybe images of workers marching in the streets in a show of solidarity or communist strength is your image?  Probably most of us don’t make a connection to Christmas with May Day, but we should!

Traditionally in pre-christian Europe May 1st was recognized as the first day of summer.  Pagan celebrations were held to signify the warmth and growth of the season.  As Christianity adopted many pagan customs/festivals and transformed them into part of the liturgical calendar, so too with May Day.  The Roman Catholic church in particular adopted May events and created a month focused on the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God.  Since the 16th century May has been Mary’s month full of devotions, prayers, and ceremonies crowning Mary Queen of mothers.  The ceremonies might be simple or elaborate and often involved the entire parish community.  The common element would be the crowning of MAry with flowers.  Usually a statue or sculpture of the virgin mother would be in a procession and end with all the girls bringing flowers to crown her.  The oldest girl, or May Queen, would place the final crown of flowers on Mary’s head.  Depending on the nature of the congregation, these ceremonies are large parties or solemn and focused meditations.  I like the idea of the large, fun, community celebration for the mother of the baby Jesus!  I’m not sure how my sister missed out on being part of these ceremonies growing up, or maybe I just thought it was part of one of her many dance recitals.

In reading about the celebrations for Mary in May I came across a tradition that I didn’t know about- May baskets.  May baskets are small baskets full of gifts of sweets and flowers.  These would be placed anonymously on a neighbor’s doorstep.  Isn’t that a cool idea?  I think Natalie and I might have a new project- May baskets!

Countdown Podcast #10- 300 Days to Go!

Leapin’ Lent– Click to hear this week’s podcast.

This week we start with the highlights of our Presidential posts.  We recap Secret #10 for a Happy Christmas 2012 and share some of our own thoughts of the simple side of a fantastic Christmas.  Discussion on the Liturgical calendar narrows in on the similarities and connections between Lent and Advent.  Do you know the difference between your Gregorian and the Julian calendar?  Believe it or not Leap Day has a huge role in the establishment of our current calendar, and can throw quite a wrench a the liturgical calendar if not careful.  We close with a little extra candy tip that Natalie didn’t know- and I figured everyone knew about it!