Seasonal

Preparing for the Time after Epiphany (Year A)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2023, Year A, copyright © 2022 Augsburg Fortress.

Preaching

On Baptism of Our Lord we hear, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Let us remind worshipers that all people, regardless of age or any other defining factor, can be baptized. Perhaps you will assess how your congregation is welcoming people to the font, into the baptismal life, into discipleship, and into the family of God.

Once baptized, “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever” (ELW, p. 231), what’s next? This question provokes conversation about how to be a missional church. How do we announce, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? Like the earliest disciples, we are sent out to profess, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:29, 41; Epiphany 2). Let us consider that missional ministry, at its best, is about allowing the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow us where it wills. May we find new ways to partner with the Spirit in the good works already being accomplished in our neighborhoods.

We know that our God seeks unity. “Now I appeal to you . . . that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10, Epiphany 3). This may lead preachers to ask, “In what ways are we expected to seek solidarity and peace, especially when our denominational context is the ELCA, which is 97 percent white?” Questions for preaching may include: What are we willing to give or sacrifice? What would it look like to purposefully engage in acts of reparations through the radical redistribution of wealth and power? How might this bless our Black, brown, and Indigenous neighbors? Can we hear the words of Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, Epiphany 4)?

Jesus himself said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17, Epiphany 3). What repentance is owed toward those who are disadvantaged and disenfranchised (for example, people of color, Indigenous people, LGBTQIA+ siblings, those who are not neurotypical, elders, children, orphans, widows, veterans, the poor or homeless)? Who in your community is most in need of the gospel?

During this time after Epiphany, you may choose to highlight the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Please first read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. How is the Christian church’s work yet unfinished? Let us commit to being those who loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, share our bread with the hungry, house the homeless poor, and cover the naked (Isa. 58:6-7, Epiphany 5). Let us be reconciled with our siblings before coming to the altar of the Lord and allow no jealousy or quarreling to arise among us (Matt. 5:23-24; 1 Cor. 3:3, Epiphany 6). As we allow the Spirit of the living God to reconcile us to God and to our neighbors, we experience transformation and hear God’s declaration of good news concerning us as well as Jesus: “This is my [child], my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (2 Peter 1:17, Transfiguration).

Intercessory Prayer

Nathan Mitchell describes the move from Christmas to Epiphany and the time thereafter as “a move in the direction of life itself: from concern for intimacy to the concern for community” (quoted in A Christmas Sourcebook, Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 1984, p. 144). If we recognize that Jesus is not just our personal savior, but also the savior revealed to the entire world for the world, our prayers also call us to make this move. This movement flows from the manger of Christ’s birth out into the world, where Christ is revealed and embodies his ministry. Jesus’ manifestation as the Son of God as shown in the Spirit descending upon him at his baptism calls us to bring a revelation and manifestation to our own prayer petitions. Prayers could be written on strips of fabric, then woven together during the season to create a physical prayer tapestry—a tactile representation of the movement from intimacy to community.

God is always inviting us into relationship, especially through prayer. This invitation is always open, even when we have questions and doubts. What happens to us and to the people around us when we take up this invitation? What happens when we extend this invitation to prayer to those around us? By the grace of God and the prayers of the body of Christ, this season reveals to us that God reveals God’s own self over and over again in ways we cannot expect. This is a time when we can reflect on how each of us is an epiphany for others, especially in our lives of prayer.

Jesus invited the disciples, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19, Epiphany 3). We too are invited into this journey to follow Jesus and accompany one another. There’s a communal aspect to being called to follow Christ, which includes our lives of prayer. Discipleship is not a solitary practice; if it were solitary, we would not with our unique ways of prayer and worship make up the beautiful and diverse parts of the body of Christ. These Sundays after Epiphany are an opportunity to change the rhythms of prayer, just as the revelation of who Jesus is in the world changes the trajectory of human history. Setting aside time in worship to pray with a partner and in small groups changes a rhythm of praying alone surrounded by a faith community to actively and intimately praying for one another.

There is much to ponder during these weeks before Lent begins. Why is it that we pray? What is the guiding force in our prayers? If we take the time to ponder why we pray and what guides us in our prayers, this can continue to reveal to us just who God is, and why we turn to God in prayer amid our joys and sorrows and all that resides in between. As God is being revealed to the world and to us, how do we reveal God to one another through our prayers? Words or phrases expressing our prayers (for example, healing, wholeness, deliverance, help, thank you, provide, wise discernment, or names of places, people, or situations) might be written on smooth stones that are collected around or in the baptismal font as a visual reminder of the One to whom we pray, and a representation of the presence of God in each of us. This is a time to ponder how our prayers, as well as the faith that accompanies them, are made manifest in the world.

Assembly Song

In the second reading for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Paul writes in one of his letters that we are “members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus,” and that the church expresses “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” (Eph. 3:6, 10). What a marvelous invitation to think about the body’s full gamut of expressions—those expressed by individual bodies as well as the collective body of Christ—glimpsed through myriad forms of song, dance, art, ritual, and more.

Although “light” imagery is an important part of the readings for Epiphany and the time after Epiphany, awareness of how such metaphors can promote racial injustice may prompt leaders to focus on these Sundays as a time of revealing or manifestation. It is well worth the effort to seek out and include songs that extol the gifts of darkness and shadow, without which we cannot see stars or appreciate the kaleidoscopic array of color at dawn and dusk. Note, too, that “white” light is composed of multiple wavelengths that can only be seen when refracted through a prism. In the “dazzling white” light of the transfiguration story (Matt. 17:2), Christ reflects all creation. Our songs, acclamations, and prayers should endeavor to reflect all that proclaims Christ in word and sacrament, not just a Northern European or keyboard-centric cross section of the manifold gifts poured out by the Holy Spirit.

The Baptism of Our Lord encourages use of a thanksgiving for baptism that may continue throughout the time after Epiphany. Depending on the location of your font and other contextual factors, consider including a gathering or processional song about baptism on this day or throughout the season. Introduce one or more baptismal hymns in varying styles (ACS 955–959) or teach the assembly a paperless song such as “All who are thirsty” (ACS 981), “God welcomes all” (ACS 978), “I am thirsty,” or “To the bath and the table” (both from Singing in Community, Augsburg Fortress, 2017).

John’s reference to Jesus as “Lamb of God” on the second Sunday after Epiphany also invites leaders to consider how the Agnus Dei may be sung, just as the church has done since around the eighth century. In some settings, these words are sung as communion ministers take their places; in some settings, it is the first communion song during distribution. Whether singing the same “Lamb of God” throughout the season or exploring a new setting each week, care should be taken to account for the assembly’s movements—attending to ushers’ directions, moving to the table, and receiving bread and wine. Do not fragment the assembly’s voice to the extent that the “Lamb of God” is sung poorly or not at all.

Because the second Sunday after Epiphany falls on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth anniversary, consider ways in which themes of justice and welcome can be woven throughout this and following Sundays, through hymns such as “Let streams of living justice” (ELW 710) or “Lift every voice and sing” (ELW 841). This seasonal approach is ultimately more beneficial than a single “Spirituals Sunday,” which, though well-intended, may unwittingly participate in a long history of appropriation and tokenism.

The association of the tune wie schön leuchtet with the time after Epiphany—both in the hymn “O Morning Star, how fair and bright!” (ELW 308) and in the baptismal and seasonal imagery in “O Holy Spirit, enter in” (ELW 786)—may not only suggest using these hymns, but may encourage leaders to borrow the triadic and scalar melody for other portions of the service. For a compelling example of this, see the thanksgiving at the table for Epiphany and Transfiguration in Gail Ramshaw’s Pray, Praise, and Give Thanks (Augsburg Fortress, 2017, pp. 44–45; also available in the sundaysandseasons.com Library > Seasonal Thanksgivings at the Table). God’s glory is continuously revealed in Christ and through the Spirit in ways subtle and extravagant, quiet and ostentatious, seen and unseen. May the church’s worship and singing during this and all seasons endeavor to reflect this knowledge which, indeed, surpasses all human understanding.

Worship Space

We experienced echoes of joy in Advent, the incarnation of joy at Christmas, and now the manifestation of joy in all sorts of surprising ways during the time after Epiphany. The Holy Spirit is all over this season in Jesus’ baptism, in the voice of Jesus, in the comfort of the words of the Beatitudes, in the dazzle of the mountaintop at Transfiguration. What if we lean into the Holy Spirit as a home for the season, and avoid the fixation on the light-darkness metaphors that, when unexamined, can reinforce white supremacy? The fire of the Holy Spirit can be a cleansing fire, a purifying fire, and can offer us a different focal point.

  • Pull the tabletop flame bowls or tiki torches out of the garden shed, polish them up, and get some smokeless fuel. Place a torch or several at the altar and other focal points. These have a larger flame than typical candles. Let flames warm what, for many areas of the country, is still a cold time of year.
  • Evoke the Holy Spirit through creative visuals. Project imagery on a screen, blank wall, or fabric or canvas backdrop. Ask children, youth, or gifted photographers or artists in your congregation to create imagery for the season that draws on the worship texts (for example, Acts 10:34, Baptism of Our Lord; John 1:32-34, Epiphany 2; 1 Cor. 1:21-25 and Matt. 5:3-12, Epiphany 4; 1 Cor. 2:9-12, Epiphany 5; 2 Peter 1:20-21, Transfiguration). Use the projections during parts of the liturgy. If there is an online component to your worship, change up the imagery used on this platform.
  • See the Spirit dance: Create a spray of ribbons on the end of a pole to join your procession, moving and dancing through the assembly during the gathering and sending song.

We lift the voice of martyr Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during this time. The Holy Spirit is heard and felt in Dr. King’s resounding words that transcend time and bellow for justice and the reign of God. Create a designated prayer space or conversation area for racial justice in your worship space, and invite people into the work of prayer and learning around this topic. Use Dr. King’s most famous words, “I have a dream,” as a banner phrase for the whole season, for indeed the reign of love is God’s dream for the whole creation, set into motion by the birth of Jesus. Frame a photograph of Dr. King and let a candle burn near it.

Consider how the aesthetic elements you used during Advent and Christmas can carry into this season, weaving a theme of joy and exaltation in what God has done and is revealing.

  • Maybe the Advent blues move to the font at the Baptism of Our Lord, draped in a different way.
  • If aqua and turquoise were used to complement other blues during Advent, they can be mixed with greens during the time after Epiphany.
  • If you added a star for Christmas, or rays shooting upward to your ceiling, keep them in place for the time after Epiphany.
  • Particularly if scripture or song texts use the language of darkness and light, use darkness in the space and paperless singing to engage with darkness as an element that is celebrated, welcome, and holy in your space. The sounds of a small fountain in your baptismal font or a singing bowl can create a meditative space in a darkened room.

Seasonal Checklist

  • If Baptism of Our Lord (January 8) 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 caregivers.
  • If a form of baptismal remembrance is used, evergreen branches for sprinkling may be desired.
  • On the festivals of 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 to organize your own.
  • If you are hosting a catechumenal process and have a group of inquirers, use Welcome to Baptism (ELW, pp. 232–233) 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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