[Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12]
The liturgy had concluded; and members of our congregation (as is your wont, having respectfully and appreciatively listened to the organ Postlude) rose from their pews to leave. I was in my usual place at the rear crossing, greeting worshippers, when one member came up to me; and with mild consternation pointed to the church doorway and said: “Why is there graffiti over the door?”
It was not that this inquiry took the place of a more sociable (not to mention, a more personal) greeting that bothered me. It was the implicit fact that this parishioner had obviously not absorbed my inspirational teaching about a lovely Christian tradition that speaks to the importance of “the Day of the Epiphany .” I admit that I was initially miffed by this, but in reality (and with prayerful hindsight) I realized that (in spite of his lack of awareness) he was not so far off base. The chalking above the lintel of the church door, the one that leads into this worship space and then back out into the world, is graffiti; but the discerning insight is that this chalking is “holy” graffiti. And this is what this sermon is about: what stands behind and within this “holy graffiti”.
Under the rubric of the “plans of mice and men”, Becky Taylor had organized a Sunday School for today that was centered upon the “chalking of the door”. It was Becky’s intention that at the liturgy’s conclusion the children of our rejuvenated Sunday School would stand at the back of the church – with me – and hand out special bags that they had put together for this day. The bags contain chalk and a prayer so that you may go home and chalk the door of your house. Previous to this, the plan was to have our kids present the chalk at the Offertory to be blessed as holy tools for the work of this “holy graffiti”. And now, the snowstorm has caused Sunday School to be canceled, but the question remains: What’s all this about?
The answer is: It's about the “Day of the Epiphany” (which was yesterday), that occasion when (as biblical legend would have it) the Magi came to Bethlehem’s manger to honor the babe they understood to be “the newborn king”. The Magi, those shaman-astronomers from afar, had seen in their celestial studies an auspicious sign – a sign that a new and significant king was to be born in the Land of Judah. Being observant and studiously disciplined, it would seem that their independent observations first brought them together; and then as a journeying unit they followed the guiding star in their quest to meet and honor this newborn king.
Now, let’s push the “pause button” for a minute and consider this Epiphany moment and what it contains. To do so is not only informative; it is also fun – holy fun.
The first point to be made is something I trust you already know: namely, that the word “Epiphany” means “manifestation”. Jesus the Christ, born of a woman by the Holy Spirit, fulfilling all the Law and the Prophets, is the Messiah for all the world and all its people. As St. Paul says, God’s Christ is for “Jew and Greek … slave and free … male and female…”1 The purpose of Israel as a people in covenant with God is to “manifest” the reality and hope of the God-life. So, as the Collect of the Day in the Lutheran liturgy puts it, the “Day of the Epiphany” is when God, by the leading of a star, … revealed your only Son to the nations”. Not a secret. Not a singular possession of one people. But the gift beyond all gifts, given to all God’s people.
And so it is that this Epiphany Day is the bridge between Christmas and God’s intentional revealing of the saving and restoring gift of “Emmanuel: God with us”.
The story of the “gift of the Magi” speaks to God’s “manifestation”, God’s sharing of the gift of the Christ. In a phrase, the magi are us – or what we could be. Astrologers paying attention to the transcendent message of God’s first Bible, that is, the created order, to discover in nature a sign that propels them to seek the One behind all creation.
Understandably assuming that if a new king was to be born in Judea, King Herod (the present “king”) would know all about it; but of course the tragic irony is that neither this poser-monarch and fragile tyrant nor his shallowly learned advisors have any idea of what the Prophet Micah proclaimed: That the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem of Judea.2 Only when the Magi asked the pretentious king about the newborn did Herod’s interest get peeked. And as with all tyrants, any threat to his position and power needed to be exterminated. So it was that Herod tried to use the Magi as his undercover foils, but they, having had a dream not to return to Herod, went home by another way.
To the extent that we allow our own lives to be reflected in the Magi, we, too, are given fair warning both of the need to seek God’s larger life and that searching for who and what Jesus is will change us, causing us to “go home” by another way.
In the closing remarks from his poem, The Journey of the Magi, T. S Eliot’ has the Magi narrator confess the impact of such transformation.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.3
Epiphany. Manifestation. New life that includes dying to the old life, the “old dispensation”. But always open to the discovery and reception of new life.
One way we “manifest” Christ’s Epiphany in our midst is to engage in the “Chalking of the Door”. We write the “holy graffiti” on the lintel of our doors to remind us of God’s manifestation in his Son, Jesus. The tradition has ancient (albeit, obscure) roots that reverberate from the Jew’s Passover story and experience. At the Passover, the Hebrew people, enslaved in Egypt, were instructed to mark their door lintels with the blood of the Passover Lamb so that the Angel of Death would “Passover” their homes and families. Our chalking of our doors also speaks of belonging to God’s deliverance in Christ from fear and death. Another echo of our chalking has its roots in the Hebrew practice of placing a mezuzah on the doorpost of their abodes: A concrete reminder of Deuteronomy’s command to keep God’s words on their hearts, their gates and doorposts, and to speak of this holy and lifegiving truth at home.4
In terms of the actual chalking, the Christian tradition writes in chalk the following proclamation and prayer by chalking the year’s date, the image of the cross, and the abbreviated “names” of the Magi. So, at the end of the liturgy and missing the presence of our Sunday School kids, you and I will first chalk the year’s date to locate God’s “manifestation” in our time. On the far left will be “20”, and on the far right of the lintel will be “24”: this New Year. Then, we will mark the year’s notation with crosses, a notation that all time, especially our time, is contained and overshadowed by Jesus’ cross of redemption and love. Then, the tradition includes chalking the first initials of the Magi. At this point comes the fun, the “holy” fun.
Jeopardy Question: How many Magi kings were there? Hint: what did the opening hymn say about this? The traditional answer, of course, is “three”. Yet, moving beyond the loveliness of the story and paying attention to the scriptural rendition, the number of “kings” is not mentioned. The accounting for “three kings” stems from association with the three gifts that are presented to the babe and his mother. As the brilliant cartoonist, Gary Larson, once penned with his usual bite, rumor has it that there were four “wisemen”, but the three threw the fourth out from the group because he brought fruitcake as a gift!
Be that as it may, the narratival story of the Epiphany grew and developed in the telling to attribute three names to the “kings”: Caspar; Melchior; and Balthazar. So, we put a chalked “C’ after the first cross; add a second cross to join the chalked “M”, with a third cross before the chalked “B”.
At this point and in full-circle fashion, the tradition supplied the overarching blessing of this Epiphany occasion. Taking the provided names of “Caspar”, “Melchior”, and “Balthazar”, a blessing and a prayer emerged. The “C” for “Caspar” became a symbol for “Christ”, Christus. The “M” for “Melchior” stood for the Latin word for house, mansionem. And the “Balthazar’s” “B” became the Latin word for “blessing”: Benedicat. Together, there is created a blessing and a prayer. Christus, Mansionem, Benedicat: “Christ bless this dwelling.”
The chalking not only invokes a blessing on the house and all who live therein; it also stands as a prayerful reminder to take the faith out into the world, beyond our own doors, making us the prayer and the blessing.
In any event, in this new year of 2024 (as in all the years St. Philip’s has stood here), may “Christ bless this house of prayer, healing, hope, and redemption”; and may all we who pass through our door be continually equipped to be that prayer and blessing in the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Galatians 3:28
2. Micah 5:2
3. T. S. Eliot. Journey of the Magi.
4. Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21