The season after Christmas and before Lent can often seem like a “down” time in the church year—as if we’re simply marking time while waiting for another grand celebration. Whether it is because people are suffering from holiday fatigue or influenced by gloomy winter weather, the season of Epiphany can go by unnoticed and unheralded.
This was the case in our congregation until we introduced the concept of “star gifts.” A star gift is simply a star-shaped piece of brightly colored paper with a word printed on it. Every person who comes to church on Epiphany Sunday receives a star gift and is asked to reflect on that word for the coming year. The people are invited to ponder what significance this word might have in their lives, and how God might be speaking to them through that simple message. We draw from a list of more than 150 words (see p. 37), each with its own message and significance.
The star gifts are passed around to the congregation using the same offering plates that we use later on in worship to gather up the tithes and offerings. As people help themselves to a star gift (without looking—just reach in and grab!), the significance is not lost. In this moment, people are not asked to give; they are invited to receive. It reminds us that this is always the order of things in God’s realm—God always gives first, and then we are invited to respond with our gifts and ourselves.
The wise men who traveled great distances to offer their gifts to the newborn Christ-child were responding to the gift first given to them. They received God’s gift, then offered their gifts to God. As we commemorate the arrival of the wise men and remember their offerings, we delight in this paper reminder that symbolizes God’s generosity in our lives.
Our congregation has discovered that people look forward to this celebration with great anticipation. Over time, this Epiphany tradition has grown in popularity so that Star Gift Sunday (the Sunday closest to the celebration of Epiphany on January 6) now rivals Palm Sunday for attendance and participation.
Why would such a simple gift take on such deep meaning? What is it about receiving a word on a piece of paper that touches people? I believe that people are yearning for tangible, clear signs of God’s presence. Our congregation—like yours, I’m sure—is filled with compassionate people who spend hours baking for sales, cooking meals for shut-ins, writing cards to the sick, providing transportation to the homebound, calling on people in hospitals and nursing homes, praying for those in need, stretching the church budget by giving what they can, and hosting church suppers.
The congregation is good at being busy and “doing” for God. This Epiphany Sunday celebration represents a change in our routine; people are offered the opportunity to “be still” in the presence of God and to receive God’s gifts. This is not because we have done anything to merit such attention, but simply because of God’s abundant generosity. When the congregation arrives, they are prepared to receive something special. As they climb the steps to the sanctuary and settle into their pews, they often compare notes: What word did you receive last year? What did that word tell you during the last twelve months?
“Ponder These Words in Your Hearts”
Everyone who receives a star gift is encouraged to take it home and hang it up where they are sure to see it every day. It may be on their bathroom mirror, or next to their computer screen. Often when I am visiting in someone’s home I will notice a star gift adorning the refrigerator or posted by the back door where it will be seen as people depart and enter their home. Many people keep their star gifts from year to year; gradually accumulating a virtual constellation of wise words and encouragement displayed as a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.
People allow these words to speak to them. They often start by looking the word up in the dictionary so that they are clear on its meaning; we hear the word grace all the time, but what exactly does it mean? A word that seemed unclear at the beginning may gain new meaning as the year goes on.
Often the words seem very timely, as if they were indeed designated for the recipient. It is this sense of serendipity and wondering how God might be working through this simple process that keeps people engaged. A woman whose husband recently passed away receives the word perseverance; a student off to college turns over her star to read responsibility; our music director receives the word harmony, much to the delight of the choir.
The year that I was scheduled to go on sabbatical, I received this star gift: time. Before I left for my period of study and renewal, I reflected with the congregation on what a gift that was—to receive the gift of time from them and their blessing so that I might rejuvenate my spirit. I entered into that sabbatical with a profound awareness of the grace being afforded.
Another year I drew out a star with the word faith printed on it. My congregation thought that was pretty amusing—their pastor was receiving the gift of faith! Several people joked with me on their way out the door following worship: “I guess you didn’t really need that gift, did you?” “I’m the one who could use more faith, not you, Pastor!” As it turned out, that year was a year to try a minister’s soul. Tragic death was followed by heartbreaking crises. As our congregation was challenged by a series of devastating losses, several people came to my office to pose that perennial question: why does God allow such tragedies to occur?
Often it felt as if my own faith was being put through a wringer. My star gift offered me a context in which to reflect. How could I receive the gift of faith when I needed it most? Months later, when I spoke in a sermon about those dry periods when God seemed distant and my work as pastor and leader was especially daunting, I reminded people of my star gift. Faith, I learned again that year, is always a gift, something to hang on to especially in times of trouble, and never to be taken for granted.
Out of Receiving Comes Sharing
Throughout the year, members of our congregation are encouraged to share some thoughts, either briefly or at length, about their star gifts. Thus it can be that on a bright summer Sunday in the heat of August, we will be reminded of that frigid January Sunday when we were surrounded by candles to bolster the dim winter light. We reflect on the God who continually encourages and strengthens God’s people. Perhaps that is the delight of star gifts—they truly are a gift that keeps on giving, even long after the Epiphany season is over.
Like any other gift, star gifts can either be received with joy or discarded and forgotten. People need to be intentional about their response to their star gift. Will the paper stars be stuffed into a pocket or jammed into the bottom of a purse, never to be considered again? Or will that word be considered an opportunity—a chance to reflect on how God speaks to God’s people? What might we learn from one word? What new ideas might evolve, what treasured wisdom might resurface?
Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence breaking through to shine as a light in the darkness. Each year our congregation rejoices in the reminder of our generous, giving God—one star gift at a time.
Editor’s note: This would also make a great faith formation exercise with a small group or with family members!