You will notice a couple of weird additions to our normal liturgy this week. Before our service of Holy Eucharist begins Sunday morning, we will gather on the steps outside the front door (as I write this on Thursday I am hoping for tolerable weather on Sunday morning). There, we will bless a bunch of chalk, and I will use a piece of it to inscribe a set of mysterious letters and numbers above the door of our beloved church (don’t worry, it can be washed off). Here is the inscription:
The crosses—just like the sign of the cross we make during the liturgy and just like the cross I like to write after my name—are meant to be a visual symbol of blessing, a reminder and a claiming for one’s own of the blessing afforded to us by the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The 20 and the 19 together stand for the year. The C, M, and B have a double meaning. They are the initials of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, which according to tradition are the names of the three Magi whose visit to the Christ child in Bethlehem we celebrate in today’s Gospel passage. The letters also stand for the Latin phrase, Christus Mansionem Benedicat, which means “May Christ Bless this House.” Everyone will be invited to take a piece of blessed chalk home with instructions to mark their own doors.
The other unusual piece of our liturgy is found right before the sermon. I will solemnly read the Epiphany Proclamation, which informs the congregation of the most important dates of the upcoming year. This tradition arose because, unlike fixed holy days like Christmas, there are holy days that are movable as they are ultimately tied to the Jewish lunar calendar instead of our solar calendar. Easter is the preeminent of these holy days. Once the date of Easter is determined, the date of other movable holy days can be determined. Before the prevalence of printed calendars (or google), the average person was not equipped to accurately calculate the date of Easter. So, every year on Epiphany the date of Easter and all the other movable holy days were announced in each local parish.
Finally, you’ll notice on the front of today’s service leaflet, we have printed Sunday’s date in what might seem like a comically formal and overwrought fashion, using the phrase “in the year of our Lord.” This way of writing the date comes from the early middle ages, when Pope Gregory the Great had the old Roman calendar re-tooled, so that it began the year that Christ was born (or as close to that year as the scholars of the time could manage). Every year after Christ’s birth is marked as A.D. (for Anno Domini which is Latin for “in the year of our Lord.”) All the years of recorded history before Christ’s birth, in our calendar, step reverently backwards from the year of the Incarnation.
There is a method to this madness, and it’s not just because I love the antiquarian and obscure. What we are about, as weird as it may seem, is very serious. These traditions are about marking out places and times as being sacred, holy, set apart. They are about making time and space sacred again.
Our society runs on the mechanization and the routinization of time and place. Our watches our synchronized. Our calendars are fixed and full. Every minute is accounted for and most of those minutes are monetized. Time is money. Our public places are uniform, mass-produced, and streamlined for efficiency. Perhaps some of this is necessary for the ways that we provide for ourselves. But it has the effect of tricking us to think that our mediated experience of time and space is the only reality there is. It shapes our hearts and imaginations away from sacred time and space. Liturgy—what we do on Sunday morning and beyond—along with all the strange little traditions that Christians have developed over the last two millennia are meant to remind us of a different reality; to make us see how things actually are. All places are sacred, though some have been desecrated. This is because the entire universe and all that is in it finds its ultimate source in God’s creative act. All time is ordained by God. What’s more, God in Christ has entered into human history in a personal, embodied way. Jesus’ birth two-thousand and nineteen (or so) years ago changed everything. Christ’s life, death and resurrection continue to reverberate throughout history, both forward and backward. By his saving grace, everything changes; everything is made new. That is the Good News of God’s reality. As we embark on this year of our Lord 2019, we need every reminder of this ultimate truth and deeper reality that we can muster. Let this sacred place be a sign to others that all places are holy; that God’s presence is available everywhere. Let our weird little celebrations of the Church’s year be signs to everyone who knows us that Jesus is real in our lives and that his presence makes all the difference in the world.