Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 23, 2010

How to Handle Epiphany

We are presently in the Epiphany season of the church year.  The season begins with Epiphany Day on January 6, which brings an end to the twelve days of Christmas and celebrates the “Gentile Christmas,” the arrival of the Magi from the East who came to worship the boy Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12.  Like Christmas, Epiphany is a festival attached to a particular day on the calendar.  Unlike Christmas, our society doesn’t make much mention of Epiphany.  It’s not a national holiday, and most of our churches do not have a separate service for Epiphany.  Epiphany seems to have unfortunately degenerated into something that we merely count Sundays after: “The First Sunday after Epiphany,” “The Second Sunday after Epiphany,” and so on.  The exception occurs in years when January 6 lands on a Sunday, and Epiphany is celebrated in the regular Sunday morning service.

Since Epiphany is one of the five major festivals in the church calendar (along with Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost), it seems — at least to this writer — that we ought to consider a way to give this occasion greater attention in worship.  Epiphany suffers a similar fate as Ascension — always occuring 40 days after Easter Sunday, therefore always on a Thursday.  Many congregations move their Ascension celebrations to the Seventh Sunday of Easter (i.e. the Sunday after Ascension) so that the festival isn’t forgotten.  After several years of a sparsely attended Thursday night Ascension service despite promotion, I finally caved a few years ago and moved our celebration to the following Sunday.  I know that some will respectfully disagree, but in my present setting it seems to be the best way to ensure that the occasion is observed by the majority of the congregation.

While fully acknowledging that my proposed solution has its flaws, I would like to suggest that we could handle Epiphany in a similar manner — especially for those settings where a midweek evening service is not feasible.  Several years ago, I prepared a chart that maps out an approach for celebrating Epiphany each year, as well as the other minor festivals that show up during the twelve days of Christmas.  Here are a few thoughts about this proposed approach: 

  • When Christmas Day occurs on a Tuesday, the “problem” solves itself.  Epiphany Day (January 6) would occur on a Sunday, and no rearrangement needs to take place in the calendar.
  • When Christmas Day occurs on Wednesday through Saturday, Epiphany could be celebrated on the Second Sunday after Christmas.  In my personal opinion (and this is only one man’s opinion), some (not most or all) of the the readings chosen for the Second Sunday after Christmas in the three-year lectionary don’t necessarily gel together well with the Advent-to-Christmas-to-Epiphany progression; any awkwardness in the weekly flow of readings is removed if we observe the Second Sunday after Christmas as Epiphany.  Even if you don’t share that opinion, the option of celebrating Epiphany on the Second Sunday after Christmas allows Epiphany to still have prominence in our local congregations.
  • This leaves two years during which Epiphany does not occur on a Sunday and there is not a Second Sunday after Christmas.  My suggestion in the chart is to celebrate Epiphany in years when January 7 occurs on a Sunday and to celebrate Jesus’ baptism (the normal emphasis for the First Sunday after Epiphany) when January 8 occurs on a Sunday.  Another option would be simply to push everything back one week in the Epiphany season: celebrate Epiphany on January 7/8, Jesus’ baptism on January 14/15, then use the readings for Epiphany 2 on January 21/22, etc.  The disadvantage of this approach is that a congregation’s readings would be different than the vast majority of other congregations following the lectionary.  That will be for local pastors and worship committees to decide.
  • Don’t forget the minor festivals that occur during the twelve days of Christmas — St. Stephen on December 26, St. John on December 27, the Holy Innocents on December 28.  If one of these days occur on the Sunday after Christmas, you may want to consider observing it.  Since the Holy Innocents commemoration can be closely tied to Christmas, I have tended to observe it when it occurs on a Sunday.  Since the prologue of John’s Gospel is the Christmas day Gospel reading, one could argue a connection between St. John’s commemoration and Christmas as well.
  • If December 31 occurs on a Sunday, a congregation could celebrate New Year’s Eve in the Sunday service if it doesn’t have a New Year’s Eve service.  There are a few Christmas hymns that make a connection between Christmas and New Year’s Eve; those might make good choices to retain the sense of the Christmas season.
  • If January 1 occurs on a Sunday, consider celebrating the circumcision and naming of Jesus on the eighth day of his life (Luke 2:21).  This occasion provides a perfect opportunity to talk about the active obedience of Jesus on our behalf, fulfilling God’s law in our place.  We preachers have to admit that it’s easy to talk about Jesus’ passive obedience on the cross, but just as easy to forget to proclaim his active obedience — fulfilling all aspects of God’s law on our behalf.  This occasion gets us thinking about Jesus’ active obedience, already on his eighth day.

You may have other ideas for handling the Christmas season, Epiphany Day, and the minor festivals surrounding it.  Feel free to chime in if you do.  This is merely one pastor’s idea for remembering an oft-forgotten festival.  I hope it provides some useful and practical food for thought.

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Responses

  1. So far I have usually still held the sparsely-attended festivals (both Epiphany and Ascension) on their respective days. But another option that I would like to pursue is holding a joint service with another area congregtion. Our congregations commonly do that at Reformation, so perhaps it would allow two (or more) congregations to celebrate the festivals with a few more than they ordinarily would.

  2. I agree with your conclusions and suggestions. (I was a holdout early in my ministry for the special services, yet still preached again on those themes the following Sundays, since it’s an essential part of the theological and liturgical eduction of ALL the members). One additional thought, however: If one isn’t overly concerned about not matching everybody else’s dates, one could push back the baptism one could push back the baptism of Jesus one week and observe Jesus at 12 in the temple the week following Epiphany. I’m new to my congregation this year and they haven’t had any experience with the 3-yr lectionary till now. That means they asked me what happened to Jesus in the temple. So I’m considering inserting it into the 3-yr series next year. After all, the historic series doesn’t have the baptism of Jesus after Epiphany (but I wouldn’t want to revert to not having it there). Thoughts? (Incidentally, following Paul McCain’s and Weedon’s blogs, one sees that not everybody’s concerned about having the same readings as “every” other congregation on such occasions. Especially now that LSB follows the Revised Common Lectionary, there is little perfect uniformity much of the church year anyways.)

  3. Hi Pastor Buelow,

    I think your suggestion would make logical sense in the minds of many parishoneers. Christmas is the birth, the Sunday after could be the Presentation, then comes Epiphany, then the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple, and then his baptism. It’s hard to argue against the biblical sequence. But I also like the idea of having commonality among our churches and a sense of connection to the historic calendar. While the latter desire leads me to take a slightly different direction than you did, I can hardly fault you for the approach that you have found useful in your setting.

    How’s that for riding the fence? 🙂

    By the way, I enjoyed your Paul Gerhardt presentation at the ’08 WELS worship conference!


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