Benedictine monks continue ancient Epiphany tradition of ‘chalking’ doors in a new way

LATROBE, PA—The Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent College are continuing the ancient Epiphany blessing tradition of “chalking the doors” in a contemporary way.

In order to invoke the prayer “May Christ bless the house” on campus residence hall and office doorways as well as off campus on the homes of faculty, staff, alumni and friends in a new way, the monks are distributing pre-printed cards which are taped on doors instead of writing the blessing by hand in chalk directly on the doors.

“The monks in our campus ministry office still chalk many doors on campus for students who request it,” explained Father Thomas Hart, O.S.B., assistant to the president for mission, “but with thousands of doors on campus, we now offer pre-printed ‘chalking’ cards to continue this mysterious and wonderful tradition that began back when there were enough priests to actually go around. But, these days, the custom has unfortunately fallen in abeyance to the point where fewer and fewer people even know about it. We think it is a tradition worth preserving.”

Photo: Father Thomas Hart, O.S.B., assistant to the president for mission of Saint Vincent College, demonstrates the traditional way of chalking a blessing on a door.

Some Catholics have seen the chalk writing of a series of letters and numbers that looks like an equation and wondered what it is.

Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night, Theophany or Three Kings Day) marks the Christian tradition of “chalking the doors” by using blessed chalk to write the following above a doorway: 20 + C + M + B + 18.

Inscribed with the Cross of salvation, the letters abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat: “May Christ Bless This House,” as well as the initials of the traditional names of the Magi – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – who, as Scripture records, “going into the house saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11, RSV Catholic edition). The “20” at the beginning and the “18” at the end mark the current year. The inscription is applied as a prayer that Christ will bless homes so marked and that he stay with those who dwell there throughout the year, and any guest who may cross their threshold.

Most often, in Christian art and symbolism, the Magi are represented as monarchs with African, Caucasian and Asian features, representing perfectly the message of the Gospel, which is for God’s wish for everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of his truth (see 1 Timothy 2:4), regardless of race, language or way of life.

Even today, many Catholics in Latin American cultures call the feast of the Epiphany Día de los Reyes (“Three Kings Day”) and, instead of Christmas day, delight in “the twelfth day of Christmas” as the day for exchanging gifts, in imitation of the Magi who brought their gifts to the Lord Jesus. One German custom has been to enjoy a “Three Kings Cake” a golden pastry with orange and spice, representing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“The chalking of the doors is a centuries-old practice throughout the world, though it appears to have become somewhat less well-known in the United States,” Father Thomas commented. “We are doing our part to help with ‘remedial catechesis’ so young people can take this God-centered practice with them for their families to enjoy when some day they will have homes of their own. We are trying to make it an easy practice to implement either with chalk or with our pre-printed cards.”

“The best time for the chalking of the doors is on or near the feast of the Epiphany, but Saint Vincent College Campus Ministers offer to do it when students move into their college residence halls in September, at the start of the new academic year,” Father Thomas added. “The traditional formal conclusion of the Christmas season has been Feb. 2 (the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord) so it’s not too late!”

Complimentary copies of the Saint Vincent pre-printed chalk blessing cards are available at no charge by sending a self-addressed, stamped #10 business envelope to:  Epiphany Blessing, Saint Vincent College, 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe, PA 15650-2690. Two different designs are available, a pre-printed blessing card that simulates actual chalking and a more contemporary blessing card.

Above, this image shows the pre-printed blessing card that simulates actual chalking. The image at the top of the page shows the contemporary blessing card.