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A Leaven In The World . . . Epiphany: Rich In Catholic Customs And Traditions

December 29, 2013 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Our Catholic faith is best handed on within our families through the practice of the customs by which the “domestic Church,” which is each family, marks within the home the liturgical celebrations of the mysteries of faith throughout the year. Epiphany is particularly rich in these traditions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the meaning of the mysteries of faith revealed through the epiphanies, or “manifestations,” of the Lord. “The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with His Baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.

“In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship Him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that ‘the full number of the nations’ now takes its ‘place in the family of the patriarchs,’ and acquires Israelitica dignitas (is made ‘worthy of the heritage of Israel’)” (CCC, n. 528).

The following information on the customs of Epiphany is courtesy of Women for Faith and Family. Further information about the recipes discussed here can be found at wf-f.org/epiphany.html:

Because the Magi came from the Orient, many of the traditional foods served on this day are spicy. Spice cake is often baked for dessert, and entrees may include curry powder or other pungent spices.

Several lovely family customs are associated with Epiphany. It is on Epiphany that the Christmas creche is finally completed, as the figures of the three wise men at last arrive at the crib. In many families, the wise men are moved a bit closer to the crib every day from Christmas Day until Epiphany. Also, recalling the gifts to the Infant Jesus, many families exchange small gifts.

The blessing of the home is also a popular Epiphany custom. Using specially blessed chalk (your parish priest will bless the chalk, if you ask, or use the prayer of blessing below), many households mark their entrance door with the year and with the inscription CMB, the initials of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the names of the three wise men in legend. The inscription also stands for Christus Mansionem Benedicat, which means “Christ, bless this home.” The popular form the inscription takes is 20+C+M+B+10. It remains above the doorway until Pentecost.

In England, Twelfth Night was traditionally celebrated with a drink called Lamb’s Wool, made of cider or ale, with roasted apples and sugar and spices. It was the custom to bless apple trees on that night by pouring a libation of cider on them.

A common custom in many cultures is the Epiphany cake containing a trinket or bean; the person who finds it in his piece becomes the king of the feast. Sometimes there are two trinkets, or one bean and one pea: one for a king and one for a queen. In the royal courts of the later Middle Ages, these customs were very popular. Some believe these celebrations derived from pagan Roman customs associated with Saturnalia, which fell at around the same time as Christmas. If so, it can be seen as an example of “inculturation,” or transforming pre-Christian customs and practices by giving them Christian significance. The Roman theme of the lordship of the feast was easily shifted to the Epiphany theme of kingship: that of Christ Himself and of the magi, or “Three Kings.”

Different parts of Europe have different traditional recipes for the Epiphany cake — from the almond-paste-filled pastry, the French “galette des Rois” topped by a golden paper crown, to the British fruit-filled, iced, and layered confection. Some bakeries feature these cakes during the holiday season.

Epiphany cake: This cake is unforgettable to children, and an opportunity to underscore the meaning of Epiphany. A cake studded with candy jewels like a crown, and/or topped by a golden paper crown can help young children understand the Epiphany as the recognition, by the magi (“three Kings”), of the Infant Jesus as Christ the King.

The coin or bean in the cake is a pleasant tradition. The one who gets the coin or bean gets to wear the paper crown as king or queen of the feast — and has the “royal privilege” of writing the inscription over the door.

Blessing of Chalk: Let us pray. O Lord God, bless this creature chalk to make it helpful to man. Grant that we who use it with faith and inscribe with it upon the entrance of our homes may enjoy physical health and spiritual protection. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

House Blessing: Lord God of Heaven and Earth, who hast revealed thine only-begotten Son to every nation by the guidance of a star: Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill them with the light of Christ, that their love for others may truly reflect thy love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

A Happy New Year to all our readers and families!

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