Many congregations celebrate Advent. Something inside us wants to prepare for Christmas. Even church outsiders can be familiar with Lent; the legacy of fasting and fish on Fridays lingers in certain neighborhoods and cultures. But Epiphany? Not so much.
In our neighborhood Epiphany is mostly new and unfamiliar, both to longtime churchgoers and spiritual novices. So we reinforce it using two life-giving practices that invite spiritual novices, skeptics, and Christian veterans into this wonderful aspect of the timeless liturgy.
First, we use simple worship frames. These pithy introductions alert worshipers to the character and purpose of the season and can be used to introduce other worship elements as well. These frames—like the frame on the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Starry Night or your daughter’s third-grade art project—orient people to the treasure inside.
Imagine that each week during Epiphany the preacher uses a simple Epiphany frame to begin her sermon or to introduce the Scripture reading. One poignant and pithy frame is inspired by the wonderful storytelling preacher Fred Craddock. Its simplicity may be just what a particular service needs. Imagine repeating each week: “During Epiphany, the whisper in Bethlehem becomes a shout heard around the world” (see Note 1).
Or imagine a thicker frame, one a worship leader might use before the service begins or to introduce a prayer or opening song:
For generations followers of Jesus, after celebrating Christmas, have studied Jesus’ life. It’s a season we call Epiphany. It starts with two events: the Magi visiting baby Jesus, representing the entire world coming to Jesus seeking light, and Jesus’ baptism, when he hears his Father say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Or maybe you want to directly emphasize the person and work of Jesus to highlight the way Epiphany accents his miracles and message:
We all need a miracle. For some, the need is modest. We hope a certain someone will say yes when we ask them on a date. We hope our boss will give us a raise. We hope our toddler twins let us sleep through the night. For others, the miracle we need is a lot bigger. We hope the cancer treatments work. We pray our parents won’t get divorced. We hope we find a job so the landlord won’t take away our apartment. Or we hope our city’s streets will be safe for all people.
During the season of Epiphany, we rehearse the life and ministry of Jesus. We see again, or for the first time, the One who heals lepers, gives sight to the blind, welcomes spiritual misfits, and turns water into wine. As we pray this morning, let’s turn to him.
This particular frame is rather big and sturdy. You may want to abbreviate it. But our longtime attendees and first-time guests resonate with the way it helps us enter the season.
Frames can be wonderfully missional and life-giving and can serve any worship leader who wants to increase a congregation’s missional worship IQ. Imagine a frame that invites worship newcomers and veterans to pass the peace:
During the season of Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus coming as the light of the world, and we celebrate his light spreading to every neighborhood and nation. As a symbol of receiving and sharing that light, turn to someone near you and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.”
Built into the season of Epiphany is an emphasis on mission. Jesus is the light of the world—the whole world. As we celebrate and remember God’s story, we also celebrate and remember the way God creates a church with people from every nation. Many countries celebrate the first day of Epiphany as a national feast day. You might check with your congregants to learn if anyone experienced such a tradition growing up. Here’s an example of the way we translated the multinational theme of Epiphany into a frame:
At first, Christmas seems like a Jewish story. The Bible makes a big deal about Joseph and Mary being descendants of Israel’s most valiant and godly leader, King David. We might assume the innkeeper and those shepherds who told about Jesus were also Jewish, living as they did in a small town like Bethlehem.
But then in waltz the Magi, and with them the whole world. Our people, whoever we are—Bulgarians and Bolivians, Chinese and Czechs, Filipinos and French, the Dutch and the Navajo—now live at the center of the Jesus story. Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, the story now includes you. Let’s celebrate our belonging by passing the peace (or singing a song, or praying, or reading a text, or thanking God for our spiritual ancestors).
A second way we enter and live into Epiphany each year is through house blessings. In just a few years, it’s become an Epiphany favorite for our congregation. We offer to bless the home of any attendee. We are amazed at how enthusiastically Northern Californians take to this tradition echoing a practice dating back to the Middle Ages. At a person’s request, we visit their home (or condo or apartment) and pray through it, room by room. Some offer requests specific to each room: a grade school child asks that we “bless the kitchen” because “sometimes there’s yelling and arguing in there.” A young sibling invites us into his bedroom, wondering, “Will you pray that my bad dreams go away?” A new attendee points to a Bible on the bookshelf and asks, “I need help to understand that book.” A long-married couple says, “Pray that our bedroom would be a lot of fun.” (We knew what their prayer request entailed.)
Sometimes, following the ancient practice, we sign the letters C, M, and B on the doorpost of the home, initials for the traditional names of the original Magi: Casper (or Gaspar) of India, Melchior of Persia, and Balthasar of Arabia. CMB also stands for Christus mansionem benedicat or “May Christ bless the dwelling” (see Note 2). We then join hands and pray a simple litany, printed on a bookmark we leave with the residents to guide continued prayer during the season (see Note 3).
This bookmark, designed by my friend and colleague Rev. Sam Gutierrez and Reformed Worship’s designer Frank Gutbrod, is welcoming to all ages. With simple elegance, it accents the way Epiphany shows the light of Jesus coming into our lives, our homes, and all nations. Occupants and elders, pastors and parishioners pray together for the home and the people who live and shelter and visit there. As the time together ends we anoint people with oil and water, inviting them to remember their baptisms. The visits are delightful moments of grace and a valuable connection between worship and pastoral care.
I grew up in a congregation that practiced annual “house visitation.” Elders and pastors visited people in their homes. To my grade school and adolescent self, it felt like a visit to the vice principal’s office. Questions seemed like a spiritual test or checklist, an annual exam administered to us as we sat stiff and clean in our Sunday finest. But the beauty of a house blessing is that elders and pastors come with a clear and welcome intent: to bless. In practicing this time-honored tradition we come like the Jesus of Epiphany, to heal and invite and bless and embolden.
During Epiphany I often imagine the Magi sashaying into Jerusalem with tattoos and tarot cards and a bumper sticker affixed to a camel advertising, “First palm reading is free.” Clearly their questions unnerved the paranoid King Herod, and they still unnerve political posers today. Their entrance must have been unforgettable (talk about a house blessing!). Their exit surely was. These consummate outsiders show that, in Jesus, anyone can become an eternal insider. That’s quite an Epiphany story to celebrate, to frame, and to take home.
Note 1: Excerpts from this essay are from the recently released The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission, by Kevin J. Adams (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2019), in which you can find multiple frames for every liturgical season and element.
Note 2: Our inspiration for the practice of house blessing came from Bobby Gross’s excellent book Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 85.
Note 3: Download the printable bookmark at https://tinyurl.com/y3k9hrnd.