Near the beginning of each new year, Catholics around the globe take part in a ritual inspired by the Gospel account of the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus. This ritual involves inscribing a combination of letters and numbers above the doorways in Catholics’ homes, and it takes place on or near the liturgical feast of the Epiphany, when Jesus was revealed to the three Wise Men as the Son of God.
“On the feast of the Epiphany, it has been the tradition for families and individuals to bless their homes,” explained Father Paul Bonacci, pastor at St. Pius Tenth Parish in Chili. “This blessing has its root in remembering the hospitality of the Holy Family to the Wise Men. The blessing asks for protection and blessing on the home and all who enter.”
Many Catholics renew this blessing annually on or near the feast of the Epiphany. Traditionally, this feast has been celebrated on Jan. 6, but in the United States, the celebration has been moved to the Sunday between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8, Father Bonacci said.
A chalked inscription above the door
When a home is blessed, a presider leads the family members gathered in prayer and sometimes sprinkles the home with holy water. The main component of the blessing, however, is the marking of the door or the door frame with blessed chalk, Father Bonacci said. The presider will write the letters C, M and B, connected by crosses and bracketed by the first two and last two digits of the new year. In 2023, for example, the inscription will read “20+C+M+B+23.”
“The C, M and B stand for an abbreviation of the Latin phrase, ‘Christus Mansionem Benedicat,’ which translated means, ‘Christ bless this house.’ This prayer can be offered as the letters are written,” Father Bonacci said. “(The letters) also stand for the traditional names of the Wise Men: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In some cultures, the first Wise Man’s name is spelled with a K, (as) Kaspar, and you will see the inscription written this way in those homes.”
The crosses between the letters and numbers remind us of the sign of the cross used in blessings as well as the cross of Jesus, he added. The inscription’s location above a doorway also is significant, Father Bonacci noted.
“The writing on the door can also remind us of the Passover of the Jews when, during the final plague in Exodus, the blood of the lamb sprinkled on the lintel protected the people inside that dwelling,” he said.
Sometimes priests or deacons visit parishioners’ homes to preside over the blessings, but laypeople also may preside over the blessings. On its website, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a script for presiders to follow. Parishes also sometimes provide the resources families will need to bless their homes, Father Bonacci said.
“A few years ago at St. Pius Tenth, we put together ‘Blessings Kits’ containing the Rite of Blessing by a layperson with a piece of chalk and a small vial of holy water. Parishioners picked them up after Masses and were able to bless their own homes,” he said.
Ritual provides tangible sign of faith
The Epiphany doorway blessings are a very tangible sign of living out the Catholic faith, which is probably why the ritual has been passed down through generations of Catholics, Father Bonacci said. Catholicism is full and complete, touching and engaging people’s spirits, minds and bodies, he said.
“I think it is the same foundation of faith that makes Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday so meaningful to the faithful. There are outward, tangible signs of the unseen spiritual nature of our faith (in the) names, palms in our hands and ashes on our foreheads,” Father Bonacci said. “These outward signs which we can see and hear and touch make our spiritual journey so much more real for us.”
Father Bonacci has encountered many families who say their lives were changed for the better after their homes were blessed. Peace came to one family that was experiencing division, a teenage daughter who’d fallen away from the faith started attending Mass again, and the members of another family began to pray together. Another family found some relief from the grief that had been plaguing them since the death of a loved one several years before.
None of these outcomes are surprising, given the nature of the blessing and what it means, he said.
“It is an invitation for Jesus to be a daily guest in our home, our comings and goings, our conversations, our work and play, our joys and sorrows,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Why Do Catholics…? is a feature series that aims to answer questions about what Catholics do and believe. To suggest a question to feature, email Newsroom@CatholicCourier.com.Tags: Feast Days & Saints, Why do Catholics?