Chalk it up on Epiphany

A happy and blessed feast of the Epiphany to you. There is a tradition, which seems to have arisen in central Europe in the Middle Ages, of blessing chalk at Epiphany, which is then used by families to mark the doorways of their homes. It is, near the New Year, a prayer for and celebration of Christ’s blessing. This tradition is becoming increasingly common everywhere, and among many denominations.

What surprised me, on looking for texts to use, is that there don’t seem to be that many around. So in this short Epiphany post, I thought I would first of all summarise the practice, and then provide a simple form of prayer, both for the chalk blessing, and then the prayers at home.

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Planning for your Advent wreath – and that pink candle

A couple of days earlier, I published a carol with accompanying responses that could be used for the lighting of the Advent wreath. It seems to me that there are some issues around how we do the Advent wreath in church which are worth a follow up post.

Copyright Nick MacNeill via Geograph used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

You won’t be surprised that I follow a traditional schema for the four Sundays of Advent:

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Words for the wreath – looking ahead to Advent

I thought I’d break off today from the series I’m working on to look ahead. I know that in the parish, once the extra services of remembrance were past, I started to turn my attention to organising the Advent liturgy. There are many fine prayers around for the lighting of the Advent wreath, but there are fewer good songs or hymns.

A friend and colleague, Mark Earey has written one of the good ones, called “Advent candles tell their story” which is in the newest edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Today, though, I offer one that I wrote and used in the parish, together with the texts I used to accompany it. It is set to the carol tune Personent Hodie. Like other hymns and prayers I publish here, the hymn is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 4.0 CC BY-NC-SA licence, so you are free to copy and use it if you so wish.

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Dramatic readings

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The last (as presently envisaged) post in this section on the practicalities of reading looks at something slightly different. Sometimes you can consider a reading by more than one voice. An obvious example is dramatic reading. This can be overdone, and it’s neither to everyone’s taste, nor for every occasion. But there are times it may enrich the practice of public reading.

The most common use of dramatic reading is the tradition of reading the passion narratives, Matthew, Mark and Luke on the Palm or Passion Sunday1 of their respective years, and John on Good Friday. A number of churches have made wider use of dramatic readings, and particularly on occasions when a wide age range is present. There have even been dramatized Bibles produced filled with as much dramatic reading as possible. As far as I am aware, they are not presently in print.

On the whole, it’s more likely as a reader that you will be asked to participate in a dramatic reading, rather than be in a position to decide to read a passage with others. The key, perhaps, is to remember it’s a dramatized reading, not a play, and you are enabling people to hear the scriptures rather than making entertaining comments on them. You cannot, therefore, take any large liberties with the text. There is a place for including genuine dramatic plays in worship, but those are provided as a supplement for understanding the scriptures, not a means of proclaiming them.

In an ideal world, a dramatic reading, and perhaps especially the reading of the whole Passion, is something that is best rehearsed.2 A rehearsal not only gives people a sense of when they need to come in snappily and responsively, but also helps to work out where people need to stand for good microphone access. If the acoustics of the church, and the limitations of the sound system, means that a dramatic reading of the passion (which is often read with around ten voices) will be barely audible in your building, then it may be better either to limit the parts, or not to do it at all .

There are other possibilities apart from a full dramatic reading. Perhaps a poetic passage may benefit from two voices reading alternate verses. Or when reading a particularly long reading, there may be ways of sharing it between two or three voices that help promote attentive listening. All I want to do here is flag up the possibility that reading does not always have to mean a single voice.

While there is more that could be said about the practice of reading, the greatest aid to reading is understanding, and I am therefore (from the beginning of next week) moving on to the final, and by far the longest, section of this project. In what remains I look not at each lection, or each Sunday’s set of readings, but at each book of the Bible while keeping in mind those parts of it that are used in public worship . I hope that by grasping the overall context, you will be be better placed to locate the passage you are reading in its proper place, and understand more of what it is saying.

In this way, I want the emphasis to be on helping you understand, not simply telling you my interpretation of the reading. As you grow in understanding, so you may find you read differently in succeeding years, and help those who listen to you gain new insights because you have come to the text with your own fresh understanding.


  1. The contemporary Roman Catholic Church uses the name Passion Sunday for the Sunday that begins Holy Week, on which the Passion is read as a central part of the liturgy. Anglican (and some other) Churches maintain an older tradition also used by Roman Catholics before 1970, of calling the fifth Sunday of Lent Passion Sunday, because that was when readings, thoughts and devotions began to move away from Lenten disciplines, and more towards the Cross and Passion. The Sunday that begins Holy Week is therefore known by the name Palm Sunday, recognising Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which shapes the start of the liturgy.
    Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday is also a day to be careful with the lectionary. Two gospel readings are provided. The Palm Gospel is read as part of the entrance rite, before what is, in many churches, a procession with palm branches and palm crosses. This narrates Jesus coming down the Mount of Olives to the city. Readings from the Old Testament (with psalm) and Epistle come in the usual place, and then, without the usual congregational responses, the Passion Gospel is read, in shorter or longer version. It is this reading that is normally read dramatically, with different readers reading the parts of the different groups and characters.
  2. Versions of the Passion Narratives are available here with additional guidance on using them. I always mark copies up with a highlighter pen for each person participating.

Colour-coding the year

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The year, according to the calendar explored in the previous few posts, is colour-coded. Colour coding for different types of celebration grew-up over time, and mainly in the Western Church. The Western, particularly Roman, mindset is generally much more inclined to make things tidy, and organise them according to clear patterns than is the Eastern Church.

This colour scheme is not just a tool for organisation. It helps provide not only a quick visual guide to the changing seasons, but also, subliminally, can help create the mood.

Art installation, summer 2019, Durham city centre
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Ordinary people with extraordinary lives

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

In addition to the cycles of seasonal and ordinary time there is another calendar which overlays it. This, the calendar of saints and other holy days only intrudes on the Sunday cycle occasionally, and has much more influence on weekdays. In the diagram I’ve been using, I represent this as a looping arrow going around the year.

The calendar of saints loops around the seasonal cycle

Someone – presumably an academic used to writing copious footnotes on their sources – once described saints as “footnotes” to the gospel. That is to say, their lives show us something of the details of what a Jesus-shaped life might look like in different times, places and circumstances. Different saints bring different Christian virtues into prominence, and show what a really committed Christian life might look like at a particular time in history, or a specific cultural context.

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When time is ordinary

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

I should probably offer a health warning on this post: there’s no way of explaining the diversity of ways churches name and number the different Sundays of the year without getting a little bit geeky. I have tried to be as clear as possible, but there is a lot of rather messy detail that demands a certain amount of anorak wearing.

When I looked at the Christmas and Easter cycles, I described them as swimming in a sea of Ordinary Time. Having told these stories, one of the events around Christ’s birth, the other of events around his death, there’s still well over half a year left over. So having told these stories, the church then reflects for the rest of the year on what it means to live out a life that is faithful to the stories of this Jesus, reading through the main teaching sections of the gospels.

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The Easter Cycle

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The Easter cycle is quite similar to the Christmas cycle I explored in the previous post. There is an extended period of preparation, Lent, which leads up to the events of Easter, and an extended period of celebration after Easter which finishes on the feast of Pentecost. The origins of Lent appear to be as a time of preparation for baptism in those places that celebrated baptisms at Easter. However, it has long since become primarily a time for attending to a more disciplined life of faith.

The recovery of a long Eastertide is relatively recent, but, unlike Epiphany, Easter is not fighting any strong cultural currents, and it has deeper roots. Moreover the tone of joy naturally suits the uplifting mood of time outside the church, at least in the northern hemisphere, as we move into spring and (sometimes) early summer, and leave the winter months behind. As an old Easter hymn says:

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The Christmas cycle

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

In a previous post I offered a general outline of the church calendar, as two cycles of seasons standing out from the ordinary passage of the year. Today I focus on the first of those, the Christmas cycle.

At present the ways the Christmas cycle is organised differs slightly between the Roman Catholic lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary, on the one hand, and the Church of England’s lectionary on the other, by extending the post-Christmas celebration. This means there are two ways of constructing the Christmas cycle. The illustration is of the Church of England’s.

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The year starts in November (or sometimes in December)

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

This series now moves on into the second main section: what I am calling the firmware. This is the ways in which we organise and develop our actual practice of reading. I begin with the church year.

We have a range of different years we organise our life by, and they all start at different times. The school year in September, the tax year in April, the calendar year in January. Historically it’s moved around a bit. So it’s not really at all out of the ordinary that the church year begins four Sundays before Christmas, a date that usually falls at the end of November, and sometimes at the start of December.

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