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Epiphany in Missional Churches

Learn why missional churches are deciding that Epiphany is a lot more than a fuss about wise men. A feature story exploring the importance of celebrating Epiphany, especially in missional churches.

Two decades ago in downtown Sydney, Australia, members of Pitt Street Uniting Church befriended young people who lived near the church in an abandoned warehouse. The church people asked whether the squatters might like to come to church for tea or conversation or even a worship service.

The young people, many of them runaways, drug addicts, or prostitutes, said they wouldn’t dare. “God might strike us dead!” one explained. They did, however, like having the church members visit “their” warehouse every now and then to pray.

After one of these prayer visits, a youth asked, in an elaborately casual tone, “I don’t suppose you ever have a mass in squats, do you?”

The way Pitt Street answered that question embodies the true spirit of Epiphany. It offers a missional direction for churches to follow on Epiphany and the Sundays from then till Lent.

We have seen the Christ

One night several Pitt Street members packed up communion linens, robes, fine bread, wine, and their best communion plate. Church people and squatters sat in a candle-lit circle and went through a complete communion liturgy.

A few squatters mumbled along with the responses, remembering “things from past times. As we gave them the elements, they wept with gratitude, and their faces filled with wonder and joy,” recalls Dorothy McRae-McMahon, who pastored Pitt Street then.

The church members shared the story at the next Sunday service. “Brothers and sisters, we have seen the Christ! The Eucharist will never be the same again for us,” they said.

This recognition of Christ’s presence in ordinary life wasn’t limited to that warehouse epiphany. McRae-McMahon and her congregation opened their eyes to how their culture of moderate affluence prevented others from finding Jesus in their midst.

They began interacting more with homeless and low income neighbors. Their debates shifted from how to correctly celebrate the Eucharist—a challenge in a new denomination made up of former Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—to how to be more inclusive.

Worshipers who loved historic prayers asked illiterate people to suggest words and phrases for new prayers. Standing in the communion circle, they learned to smile, not shudder, when a smelly person with dirty fingernails offered “Christ’s body, broken for you.”

Epiphany then and now

Missional churches have a deep well to draw from in celebrating Epiphany.

In Christian tradition, Epiphany marks the miraculous manifestation or shining forth of God in human form, that is, in the person of Jesus.

Early Christians in the Eastern Church celebrated the birth and baptism of Jesus on January 6. They called this feast Epiphany. Early Christians in the West celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25 as Christmas. They added January 6, Epiphany, to the church calendar, thus creating the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Because the Western Epiphany focused on the Magi presenting their gifts to baby Jesus, many cultures celebrate Epiphany as Three Kings Day or El Día de los Tres Reyes. In parts of Italy, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, people give gifts on Epiphany, not Christmas.

It’s only in the last 20 or 30 years that many Protestants have become aware of liturgical renewallectionary readings, the church year, and other ways of living as part of the worldwide, age-old body of Christ.

By now, many Protestant churches observe Advent or Lent, but fewer observe Epiphany. Some observe it on a single Sunday, others as a season that lasts till Lent. Lent, the season from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, always lasts 40 weekdays and six Sundays. But because the Easter date varies each year, there can be four to nine Sundays after Epiphany.

Learning more about the historical sweep of religious, biblical, and cultural Epiphany practices could paralyze someone new to this liturgical observance. With so many choices, where does a missional church start?

Here are two suggestions. First, look at the lectionary and Epiphany customs as possible starting points, not set rules. Second, consider focusing on Epiphany’s missional themes—giving and receiving, hospitality, baptism, and living as “children of light.”

Journey with Jesus

“We tend to change the emphasis of feast days each year. Most recently for us, Epiphany has been a time to gain an understanding of the journey set out before us for the whole year,” says Marc Alton-Cooper, an intern at Vineyard Church Sutton, southwest of London, England.

“We don’t celebrate Epiphany as a whole season but more as a reflective starting point for the journey ahead. This year we are also reflecting on the time it took for the Magi to find Jesus,” he adds. This emphasis fits well with the congregation’s identity as a community where people are allowed to belong before they believe.

Alton-Cooper maintains an emergent church media arts blog and media arts gateway site that help worship leaders find resources from the early church to the emergent church.

In planning creative worship services, he tries to “open up another arena that allows people to connect to God, tying in images and words that will stimulate thought and action.”

To plan creative Epiphany services, he recommends exploring other Christian traditions, whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or Celtic Christian. “Go to their services and experience how other parts of the body of Christ work. This is God’s creativity in action,” Alton-Cooper says.

How Missional Churches Celebrate Epiphany

Missional churches often draw on the lectionary and various cultural or Christian customs in planning Epiphany services. 

The Revised Common Lectionary, completed in 1992, combines the Western Epiphany tradition of the Magi with the Eastern Epiphany tradition of Jesus being baptized, announcing his ministry, and performing his first miracle—changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

Lectionary insights

The lectionary is a three-year cycle of weekly and high feast day (e.g. Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension) readings. Each date includes four readings, generally one each from the Old Testament (a.k.a. Hebrew Bible), the psalms, the gospels, and the epistles.

The gospel readings vary by year, focusing on Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C, with readings from John scattered throughout each year.

The January 6 Epiphany gospel reading is always Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the wise men who followed a star and presented gifts to baby Jesus. The Hebrew reading is always Isaiah 60:1-6, which begins, “Arise, shine, for your light has come” and ends with a reference to camels, gold, and frankincense.

 On the first Sunday after Epiphany, the gospel reading is always about Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist, whether recounted by Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Orthodox Christians sometimes celebrate Jesus’ baptism as the Theophany, a moment when every person of the Trinity was manifest at once. God the Father spoke, Jesus got baptized, and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove.

Many congregations, such as All Saints Episcopal Church in Chicago, designate the first Sunday after Epiphany as a day for baptism.

For churches that observe Epiphany as a season, the last Sunday before Lent always has a gospel reading about the Transfiguration, again, as recounted by Matthew, Mark, or Luke.

Other gospel readings on the Sundays after Epiphany include common themes but the theme intensity varies by year. You’ll hear more Beatitudes in Matthew, more miracles in Mark, and more ministry scope in Luke. Only John tells about the wedding at Cana, and only Year C includes that lection.

Most epistle readings for Sundays after Epiphany are from 1 Corinthians. The passages vary by year but deal with spiritual gifts, unity among Christians, and the power of the cross and resurrection.

Three Kings and gifts

In Western tradition and art, the wise men have been known as kings or Magi (priests) from three regions, Caspar (or Gaspar) from Asia, Melchior from Persia, and Balthasar from Africa. Today, congregations often adapt Three Kings customs in worship services that are fun and visually memorable…which makes Epiphany a good time to invite friends to church.

Last year Bridge of Peace Lutheran Church celebrated El Día de los Tres Reyes on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Latino members of this Camden, New Jersey, congregation invited friends and shared their culture with African American and white members. Worshipers sang Epiphany songs, heard a sermon about wise men visiting the manger, ate rosca de reyes (a Mexican sweet bread), and gave gifts of gloves and hats to the kids.

People in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, look forward to the first Sunday after Epiphany at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. In this family communion service, 15-foot-tall Magi puppets present gifts to the Christ child. The service models St. Luke’s goal of offering many small group ministry teams, so people share their gifts in “the human family…and the family of God,” whether through puppetry, cancer support, or baking bread for visitors.

Christians in the U.K., especially Catholics, often couple Epiphany with a chalking of the door ceremony. The priest blesses Epiphany water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. People use the blessed chalk to inscribe the letters C, M, and B over doors at church and home. Sometimes they add a code of the current year and connect it all with cross or plus signs: 20 + C + M + B + 07 would be the chalking for Epiphany in 2007.

The chalked letters are said to stand for Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, as well as for Christus mansionem benedicat, Latin for May Christ bless this house.

Last year Sunday school children studied Epiphany at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church in Norman, Oklahoma. Teachers chalked the church doors, and kids said special prayers asking God to bless the church.

Equal in Christ’s eyes

Epiphany reminds us that most of us who call ourselves Christians are Gentiles and thus not God’s original chosen people. Isaiah foretold how a light shining in the darkness would draw all nations to God. The wise men were Gentiles who offered gifts to the Christ child.

Each cycle of Epiphany affirms that God’s light is for all nations—even if we, like Jonah when sent to Nineveh or Peter dreaming about clean and unclean animals, tend to think in us and them terms.

Christian Aid, an agency of churches in the United Kingdom and Ireland, produces Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany resources. Their suggestion of new words for “Away in the Manger” invites worshipers to love and care for children born—as Jesus was—to parents who are homeless or living in fear. Epiphany is a good time to think how your church welcomes travelers, including refugees, immigrants, and newcomers.

Worshiping as children of the light means accepting and asking to use gifts of people we might otherwise ignore. That’s why Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, Australia, began breaking down walls of language that kept illiterate worshipers from fully participating. For example, they began singing simple easy-to-learn responses in place of classic-yet-complex liturgical elements.

Pitt Street pastor Dorothy McRae-McMahon’s “attentiveness to both the beauty of God and the freedom of God gave the possibility to hold in creative tension aesthetics and ethics within the experience of worship,” Myra Blyth explains in a liturgical report on wealth and poverty in Christian worship.

Christ Memorial Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, used to do an annual Epiphany service that symbolized the feast’s missional aspect of drawing in those who want to know God. After dark on January 6, people would drag their Christmas trees into a pile on the church parking lot.

They’d sing, read a short litany, and set the trees on fire. Even kids could see that Epiphany is about letting God’s light and love shine through us and recognizing that light in others.

Learn More

• Explore the concept of missional church as a shift in thinking.

• Buy books of liturgies by Dorothy McRae-McMahon to see what it can mean to worship God at all times and in all places. See several of her liturgies, including a service on remembering refugees (pp. 18-20). Use worship resources and songs from the Uniting Church of Australia.

• This handy spreadsheet shows you when (or whether) a Bible passage appears in the weekly lectionary cycles; ignore the password box. Read William Willimon’s Theology Today article on the advantages and disadvantages of lectionary based preaching.

• Use or adapt Epiphany worship service plans from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, including tying Epiphany to new and remembered baptisms or missions. 

• Glean Epiphany sermon, art, movie clip, and liturgical insights from The Text This Week.

• Along with remembering Christ’s baptism, Epiphany in the Orthodox tradition often includes a blessing of the waters. Watch a 2-minute video clip of an Epiphany blessing of the waters in Idaho. See and read extensive coverage of the 100th Greek Orthodox Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Listen to Greek Orthodox Epiphany hymns.

• The Three Wise Men have inspired reams of songs, books, and speculation, including Henry Van Dyke’s classic little book The Story of the Other Wise Man, also known The Fourth Wise Man and made into a movie of the same name.

• Read Reformed Worship articles on a Epiphany

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to observe Epiphany in your church.

  • In what ways and for how long does your congregation observe Epiphany? Which Epiphany themes or practices best fit your church’s mission and vision?
  • How many minutes or what percent of the total worship service time does your congregation spend on reading Scripture? What advantages and disadvantages do you see in basing sermons and worship services on the lectionary?
  • Which elements of your worship and congregational life work best in an epiphanal mission sense, in other words, by revealing Christ’s light and love so others ask to know more?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk about applying Epiphany insights to your church mission?

  • Did you find a way to assess your congregational culture, see how it might prevent others from joining your worship, and make changes that resulted in more inclusive and participative worship? If so, will you share your methods with us?
  • Which book, drama resource, visual art, or other idea helped you create more meaningful Epiphany worship?
  • If you visited churches from other cultures or traditions, did you notice and adapt any ideas that improved your Epiphany services?