Seasonal

Preparing for the Time after Epiphany (Year B)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year B 2021, copyright © 2020 Augsburg Fortress.

Preaching

What is it that makes for a good story? A novel that grabs and keeps our attention gradually reveals that which is not known. Each turn of the page reveals the detail and progression of the story.

If the time after Epiphany is the season when Jesus is revealed, consider how preaching through the season might reveal the pieces of a story many know so well, yet in such a way that they feel they are hearing it for the first time. As the preacher thinks about the progression of the story of Jesus’ ministry from baptism to transfiguration, sharp attention is given to what is revealed along the way. Perhaps the lectionary readings for this season offer an opportunity to outline a progression of related sermons that unfold Jesus’ identity and mission.

Rarely in the lectionary do we spend such a long span of time in such a short section of scripture. In the year B gospel readings for the time after Epiphany, we rarely get out of the first chapter of Mark. With the exception of the John reading on the second Sunday after Epiphany and the transfiguration account, all the gospel readings for the season are from Mark 1. This concentration begs the preacher to be immersed in this chapter and to notice every nuance, every detail, and especially the progression of what Mark reveals as he sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry.

Consider also that the season begins with three weeks of call stories. First there’s the call of Jesus at his baptism; then we hear John’s version of the call of two disciples, a story quite distinct from how the synoptic gospels tell the story. Finally, on the third Sunday after the Epiphany, in Mark’s characteristically compact and sparse fashion, Jesus has already called Peter, Andrew, James, and John. If we hold up to the light the gemstone of our own calling to follow Jesus, what unique facets make our vocations sparkle in Christ’s light? Think about how the progression of these stories reveals the significance of baptism and how their unfolding leads us to the eucharistic table and then sends us into the world as the body of Christ.

If we’re marking the progression of story through this season, the last Sunday, Transfiguration of Our Lord, is certainly a high point, but not the end of the story. Although the cross and the resurrection are always at the heart of our preaching, the readings don’t take us to the details of those stories in this time after Epiphany; we’ll have to wait until we proclaim the paschal mystery during the Great Three Days. Still, the transfiguration is a climax, a grand revealing of Jesus’ glory that he will carry down from the mountain as he journeys to the lonely and gruesome hill outside Jerusalem.

Intercessory Prayer

The second part of the stanza attributed to St. Patrick that was the inspiration for prayer in Christmas can inspire the time after Epiphany: “Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger” (“I bind unto myself today,” ELW 450). In this season our prayers are inspired by all the ways God-with-us is revealed. We meet God incarnate in all kinds of people and in all kinds of situations; we are also deeply connected to people we will never meet through our shared participation in the body of Christ.

Getting behind the idea that God is revealed in surprising ways—as surprising as a baby in a manger—is our theological bread and butter. More of a challenge might be how God is revealed in the post-Christmas slump. The task of undecorating a Christmas tree is never going to be as cheerful as decorating one. The guests have gone home and everyone is tired out and/or sick. As we craft prayers this season, we might ask: how is God revealed in the midst of January realness? What can we learn about God-with-us from cold and flu season and from the times when our bodies demand rest?

The time after Epiphany can be a time to connect with neighbors near and far and to meet “Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” If you go out visiting in your neighborhood this season or host a community event for Twelfth Night or for the festival of Epiphany, be sure to also collect prayer requests from everyone gathered, including guests and neighbors. These prayer requests can be added to the intercessory prayers throughout the season. Contact congregations in your community and set up a plan to exchange prayer requests and pray for one another every Sunday throughout the season. If you are in contact with your companion synod, or if your congregation supports a missionary or a Young Adult in Global Mission, you can have an international intercessory prayer exchange.

The borderless body of Christ and other miracles of God’s incarnation are shared themes of Advent, Christmas, and the time after Epiphany. To help connect these three seasons, consider concluding intercessions with “As your body we pray,” to which the assembly speaks the response, “Let us know you by your love,” or sings the response, “Your will be done on earth, O Lord” (ELW 741).

The time after Epiphany is a good length to engage the congregation directly in intercessory prayer writing during the children’s message or during a cross-generational time. Use that time during worship each week to explore the different parts of intercessory prayer and to write an intercession together. The first week, write an intercession for creation (kids can make a list of animals or wild places or bodies of water they are thankful for), and substitute it for the creation intercession in the prayers provided for the week. Save this new intercession to use all season, and keep rewriting an additional intercession each week so that by Transfiguration Sunday the prayer is the product of the whole season’s worth of children’s messages. This activity draws the congregation’s thought and attention to what we pray for each week, and why, and is an empowering exercise for the body of Christ.

Assembly Song

During the time after Epiphany we focus on how Jesus is made manifest, made known to us. Through music in its many forms and styles, Christians from all times and places have learned to know Jesus. We have inherited a treasure trove of songs from our ancestors and are blessed to share in singing songs with fellow Christians from around the world. Think about the hymn repertoire of your particular assembly. Do you sing the song of the whole church? Chant? Chorale? Spiritual? Folk song? Gospel song? Praise song? Global song? Does your assembly have a well-balanced diet of songs?

Most people will tell you that they like to sing things they know. Singing familiar songs is important. Songs learned by heart can provide comfort and strength during times of both joy and sorrow. These songs may remain in people’s memories their entire lives. The choices we make for assembly song ripple with far-reaching consequence. We have an enormous responsibility to offer songs that are theologically sound, textually strong, and musically well-crafted.

It is also important to continue to stretch our assemblies’ experiences of God by offering new songs: new melodies and texts that open up new possibilities for prayer, praise, and proclamation. Every one of our favorite songs was new at one point. Every song had to be learned for a first time. Wise musicians will carefully consider when and how to introduce a new song. Lay the groundwork in advance, and your assembly may feel they already know the song before they sing it for the first time. In the weeks prior to the first singing by the assembly, play an arrangement of the tune as a prelude or other attendant service music; have a choir or soloist sing it during the offering or during communion; use the song in devotions at a committee meeting or Bible study. On the day you sing the song for the first time in worship, you might have a soloist or the choir sing the first verse, with the assembly joining for subsequent verses. Think about your assembly. How much preparation will it take before they feel confident?

The time after Epiphany is a perfect time to include “Glory to God” as the canticle of praise. Use a setting familiar to your assembly or learn a new one. “Glory to God, glory in the highest” (ELW 164) provides an opportunity for the assembly to sing in three parts, a cappella. Do not be afraid! This can be done successfully even with a small group. Teach it before the service. Exude confidence, expect the people to sing, give them a smile of encouragement, and off you go! Tell them that you’ll be singing this for the entire season; they will have plenty of time to fully embrace the song. Perfection is overrated; praising God is the goal. Another option is to sing the Taizé “Gloria” in canon (WOV 640). One advantage to learning a canon is that everyone sings the same music, just at different times. Once the group is solid singing together, break into sections and cue each section to start at the appropriate time. If your assembly is not used to singing in parts, this could be an especially beautiful and meaningful experience for them.

Worship Space

The time after Epiphany celebrates God’s incarnation and Jesus’ revealing glory. In this time we discover Christ’s presence in our lives and share that good news with the world. It began with the magi asking, “Where? When?” It is a season of risk-taking journeys—from the magi’s trip to Bethlehem, to Jesus’ birth, baptism, and transfiguration, to our inner spiritual growth and sharing of this miraculous news. It is our asking, “Where? When? How?” after the holiday busy-ness.

Keeping in mind the general ideas offered in Advent (see pp. 22–23), here are both considerations for the physical worship space and ideas for a collaborative art experience flowing from that space. What is created in the worship space may inspire your worshiping community’s personal, spiritual, and creative epiphanies! The themes that may inspire your planning include baptism, Christ for all nations, star/light, sharing the good news, and discipleship.

For the physical worship space, white is the color associated Baptism of Our Lord and Transfiguration of Our Lord, referencing the light and joy we find in him. Green is used in the time between, symbolizing our growth in Christ. These associative colors can be used in paraments, vestments, banners, and natural decorations. Place blank sheets of paper and crayons in pews for the congregation’s “aha!” creative ideas occurring during church services. Use projected or electric lighting to depict the season’s light-filled joy spreading out into the world. For personal-level engagement, create worship folder cover art for coloring, illustrating the season’s themes or symbols. Some traditional symbols are three magi crowns, a star with rays, a shell with three water drops for baptism, and the monograms Chi Rho and Alpha/Omega.

Symbols are communal visual shorthand that can help us feel, understand, and respond to human experiences. Symbols create meaningful stories relevant to today and connect us to an ancient practice before literacy. As with any language, symbols might become forgotten if not honored historically and used currently. There are online resources for researching Christian symbols. A few books are Signs and Symbols in Christian Art by George Ferguson (Oxford University Press, 1961), How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals by Richard Taylor (Ebury Press, 2003), and the pamphlet Christian Symbols (Rose Publishing, 2016).

In this season of announcements and proclamations, it might also be a time to create awareness and understanding of Christian visual traditions. Describing seasonal colors and symbols in church worship folders, newsletters, or educational speaking settings would help this news sharing. This would also be a good season to take stock of how your church’s mission is conveyed visually. What do visitors see when they arrive in your space? Is signage clear? Are wall posters and other announcements up to date? This also includes the church’s online presence such as websites and social media.

For a visual sign that connects your worship space to the community’s mission, you might consider making a huge poster showing your community’s prayer requests for love, peace, justice, and God’s loving presence or creating a video that shares your congregation’s mission for posting on a website or YouTube. Once these are shared, have someone tasked with keeping them up do date.

Seasonal Checklist

  •  If Baptism of Our Lord (January 10) 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 Come to the Water, Little One: My Holy Baptism Board Book and Welcome, Child of God (both board books for infants and toddlers) and Living the Promises of Baptism: 101 Ideas for Parents (all Augsburg Fortress) and present them as baptismal gifts from the congregation to children and parents.
  •  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 alleluia will be symbolically buried or bid farewell on the festival of the Transfiguration, make appropriate arrangements.

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From sundaysandseasons.com.

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