Seasonal

  • Preparing for the Time after Epiphany (Year A)

    The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2020, copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress.

    Preaching

    The time after Epiphany begins and ends with a festival from the life of Christ: the Baptism of Our Lord on January 12, and the Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 23. This year provides the rare opportunity to observe another festival in the middle of the season: the Presentation of Our Lord on February 2. The Presentation rarely falls on a Sunday, and both Evangelical Lutheran Worship rubrics and ecumenical practice suggest that, as a significant lesser festival, it replace the ordinary Sunday readings. Interspersed between these festivals are green Sundays that focus on the calling of the disciples and early sections of the Sermon on the Mount.

    With Easter falling late in 2020, the time after Epiphany is quite long; when considering it as a whole, there are several things for a preacher to note. Year A is filled with more light images than other years: “I will give you as a light to the nations” (Isa. 49:6 on January 19); “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2, Matt. 4:16, and Psalm 27 on January 26); “A light to reveal you to the nations” (Luke 2:32 and other images of light in the liturgy for the Presentation of Our Lord on February 2); “You are the light of the world” and “Let your light shine” (Matt. 5:14-16 on February 9). Through assembly song, preaching, and intercessory responses, this particular Epiphany can be filled with light. In fact, preachers who are looking for a sermon series might find creative options in the time after Epiphany.

    However, preachers should also name the dangers in always equating light with good and darkness with evil, particularly as heard in relation to the color of one’s skin. Consider other ways to speak of light such as brightness, radiance, and luminosity. At the same time, the entire incarnation cycle is a time to name a healthy spirituality of darkness: new life arises from the earth and places of gestation.

    The Presentation of Our Lord is sometimes called Candlemas because of the reference to “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32) and the blessing of candles that is often part of the rite for this day. Believe it or not, the origins of the feast align with Groundhog Day, and there are many ways to connect shadows, light, the fortieth day of Christmas, and this hinge between Christmas and Easter. February 2 is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In some traditions, Christmas decorations are left up until the Presentation, and the assembly song, environment, and preaching can enjoy a reprise of some elements from the Christmas liturgy.

    Preachers will find many creative options for the Presentation, whether starting with connections to Groundhog Day or naming the longing of Anna and Simeon to see the fulfillment of God’s promises. Throughout the incarnation cycle, the preacher leads the community to see with our eyes the salvation of God even as we hold in our hands the bread of life and the cup of salvation, signs of God with us.

    Intercessory Prayer

    The time after Epiphany gives us six full Sundays before the feast of the Transfiguration this calendar year. The time begins with the calling, marking, and sending of Jesus through baptism, and continues with stories of the disciples’ calling. We then listen for a number of weeks to well-known passages from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. These Sundays offer an opportunity in our prayers of intercession to consider who and what we pray for, attending to people, places, and situations that we often forget and leave out of our prayers.

    First, consider for whom and what your assembly usually prays. Give some thought to how your assembly tends to pray. Do you pray generally for the earth’s oceans, mountains, and forests? Or do you pray for your local lake, the designated wilderness areas nearby, and the city park where the congregation’s children play? Some congregations pray regularly for local places and persons, especially those well known to the congregation, but fail to pray for those beyond their neighborhood. Other congregations pray with general language for the world, the nation, and the church but forget to add specifics (the name of your companion synod, the newly elected mayor, the teachers in your local school) that would be meaningful to the assembly.

    Then, schedule a brainstorming session. At some point before the season begins, schedule a meeting with intercessory prayer leaders and/or assisting ministers. Make a list of all for whom your assembly normally prays. This list may include, among others, our president/prime minister, our bishop, our sick and homebound members. Take note of whether your congregation follows any prayer cycles: for example, your synod’s, the Global Mission prayers for companion churches and mission personnel, the ELCA’s Prayer Ventures, or the World Council of Churches’ prayers for the nations of the world.

    After you have brainstormed, make another list. Whom and what has your assembly not prayed for in a while? The prayer cycles noted above may be helpful, along with other templates for intercessory prayer, like those offered in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship rubrics (pp. 127–128) or the Book of Common Prayer forms for the prayers of the people (pp. 383–393). Are there specifics, or general categories, your assembly might lift up during the time after Epiphany?

    Make a plan. From these lists, assign names, places, or categories to the seven weeks of this season. Add them also to any emailed or printed prayer lists. (Of course, in a given week, world or local events may suggest an additional prayer petition by Saturday night.)

    If your congregation always uses an unedited version of the weekly Sundays and Seasons intercession templates, these additional persons and places—thought up ahead of time, or in the week prior to Sunday—could be prayed for during the space for additional petitions. On the other hand, making these lists beforehand may cause prayer preparers to significantly edit the templates you normally use (which practice is strongly encouraged both by Sundays and Seasons and by the ELCA’s Principles for Worship).

    In any case, at the end of these seven weeks, perhaps your assembly will have succeeded in praying for more and different people, places, occasions, events, and needs than you usually do. If in the privacy of our homes and hearts we pray primarily for the few people and situations we care about the most, then on Sunday, the prayers of intercession serve to help us pray more deeply and widely than we might on our own.

    Assembly Song

    The Sundays following Epiphany are weekly opportunities to hear readings and sing songs that reflect Christ’s incarnational identity and, by extension, our identity as members of that body. The lectionary directs us that, just as Christ is the light to the nations (a consistent theme through the season), we are to extend that light to all, through the work of the Spirit.

    This long stretch of Sundays after Epiphany is the perfect opportunity to introduce a new setting of the liturgy, though perhaps not all parts at once. This is probably best done as a slow, deliberate process, and it is an excellent opportunity to utilize both adult and children’s choirs and instrumentalists. The hymn of praise is a good place to start as most in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (both “Glory to God” and “This is the feast”) have refrains, or music that is otherwise repetitive in nature. The choir or a soloist can sing the verses, and the assembly can join on the refrain for the first few weeks, then slowly be incorporated into the whole song. When teaching a new setting, for the unlearned sections you can also use familiar hymns that echo seasonal themes. One example is “We have seen the Lord” (ELW 869). This joyful, repetitive song can be sung as a response to the gospel or the sermon, as an offering song, as a sending song, or as a common refrain as communion is coming to a close. The tune is enough of an earworm that people may find themselves singing it during the week, bringing worship outside the church walls. The hymn can be accompanied by African drums or sung a cappella and can be sung easily in English or Swahili, with an older youth as the caller/leader.

    Another liturgical piece to learn is a setting of the Nunc dimittis, “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace.” This is the song Simeon sings when Christ is revealed to him, very appropriate on Sunday, February 2, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord. If you don’t use this song after communion on a regular basis, you could use it as a sending song, perhaps singing the same setting on the four Sundays preceding Ash Wednesday. Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains several settings of this song in its Holy Communion and Night Prayer liturgies (pp. 113, 135, 324) and in its hymn section (#200–203, 313, 440).

    Every now and then, as an addition to spoken intercessions, it can be nice to sing prayers. If you have an evening service, a perfect prayer song is “Now it is evening” (ELW 572), a hymn that centers the assembly on how the incarnate Christ binds us together in community. For a morning or noontime service, “O God in heaven” (ELW 748) works well. Each hymn can be sung starting with the first stanza, with spoken intercessions interspersed thematically with the hymn text. During the spoken intercessions the assembly can sing a drone in the key to support entry into the next stanza. These songs can be accompanied or sung a cappella if already familiar to the congregation.

    For preachers, the hymn of the day can be an extra help when shaping a sermon. The hymns suggested in Sundays and Seasons are carefully chosen and might give guidance to a preacher looking for a particular phrase or direction. A common refrain could be sung at specific times during the sermon to reinforce the message. Hymns such as “Christ, Be Our Light” (ELW 715, specifically the refrain) or “Goodness is stronger than evil” (ELW 721) are easily learned, and the repetitive nature of each lends itself to memory, even for those whose memories are beginning to fade.

    Worship Space

    Despite being the longest segment of these three seasons of incarnation, the time after Epiphany is often the most overlooked in terms of worship space and seasonal preparations as worship committees exhale from the Advent and Christmas bustle. How can we use our worship space to prevent post-Christmas or “postpartum” depression after this eventful new birth among us? Where might we find the incarnation appearing in surprising places in our lives and in our world? How can our worship space shape and express that? It can be easy to let the poinsettias and other festive decorations slowly wilt or wither in the days and weeks after Christmas. But with intentionality, we can use the space during this time to focus on incarnation among us and not simply pack up the Christmas nativity scene.

    •  Are there ways to position the assembly to face one another to see the embodied community in a new way?
    •  Could we continue a prayer or processional practice during this time that in an artistic way brings in more of the gold, yellow, or white introduced at Christmas?
    •  Continue writing prayers on squares or stars of tissue paper and painting them onto heavy paper, fabric canvas, or an object such as a box or a piece of furniture. Heavier butcher paper (110 lb.) can be bought in a roll at art supply stores and works well for this type of project. You can also use a pre-stretched piece of art canvas purchased directly from the store.
    •  During worship or educational time, write visions for incarnation onto satin or floral ribbon that could be hung or woven in different ways in the worship space or incorporated into a banner. Floral ribbon is quite strong, affordable, available, and versatile. It will hold up outdoors for quite some time if you wanted to extend your visions outside the worship space to draw people in or expand the scope of incarnational imagery.
    •  What springs forth from this incarnation among us? Are there ways that the birch branches or bare evergreen tree can house some unfolding symbols of incarnation in the congregation, community, or world?
    •  Picking up on themes of streams of living water and a flowering wilderness could be a beautiful way to call forth incarnate care for creation.

    Attending thoughtfully as a worshiping community to these three seasons of incarnation can breathe fresh life into a worship space as we launch a new liturgical year. It is a new birth and life waiting to happen!

    Seasonal Checklist

    •  If Baptism of Our Lord (January 12) will be observed as a baptismal festival, publicize the festival and arrange for baptismal preparation with parents, sponsors, and candidates.
    •  Order a sufficient annual quantity of Welcome, Child of God (a board book for infants and toddlers) and Living the Promises of Baptism: 101 Ideas for Parents (both Augsburg Fortress) and present them as baptismal gifts from the congregation to children and parents. Enrolling families with babies and toddlers in the monthly Frolic Enewsletter is one way congregations may choose to provide ongoing support to families of the newly baptized.
    •  If a form of baptismal remembrance is used, evergreen branches for sprinkling may be desired.
    •  On the festivals of the Baptism of Our Lord and Transfiguration, consider using thanksgiving for baptism instead of confession and forgiveness during the gathering rite.
    •  Increasingly, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed as a day of service in many locales. Plan to participate as a church in local observances or organize your own.
    •  If you are hosting a catechumenal process and have a group of inquirers, use Welcome to Baptism (ELW, pp. 232–33) prior to the beginning of Lent.
    •  If the congregation is celebrating the lesser festival of Presentation of Our Lord (February 2), collect supplies for refreshing or creating candles for the worship space.
    •  If the alleluia will be symbolically buried or bid farewell on the festival of the Transfiguration, make appropriate arrangements. See the seasonal rites section for more ideas.

    From sundaysandseasons.com.

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