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When shall we celebrate the Epiphany?

January 6, 2014

Epiphany window, St Peter's, Ugley.

Epiphany window, St Peter’s, Ugley.

On the Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, we re-post an essay on the day from the Revd Scott Gunn’s excellent blog, Seven Whole Days.


THE FEAST of the Epiphany is January 6, right? Not so fast, it seems. On the House of Bishops / House of Deputies email list, someone asked when others were celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. Of the replies I saw, I believe all said they were celebrating the Epiphany on Sunday, January 5. This is an interesting glimpse into our attitudes about the discipline of the church and our expectations of church members.

The Book of Common Prayer is unequivocal. The Feast of the Epiphany must be celebrated on January 6, unless your congregation celebrates the Epiphany as its Feast of Title (i.e. your church is named “Church of the Epiphany” or something similar). There is no provision for celebrating this Principal Feast on a Sunday, unless it is deemed “urgent and sufficient” and one has obtained “express permission of the bishop,” but that seems unlikely. If you’re curious about the calendar of the church and the rules for following it, they are all laid out on pages 15-18 of the prayer book.

So what’s going on here? Some clergy leaders have decided that the laity cannot or will not celebrate this feast day at the appointed time. They have, therefore, in contravention of the rubrics of the prayer book, moved this celebration to a Sunday, thereby violating the canons of the church and their ordination vows. As an aside, under the current Title IV rules for clergy discipline, any cleric who is aware that someone has done this is canonically required to report this to the appropriate persons forthwith.

What’s the big deal? Has the curmudgeonly prayer book fundamentalist struck again? Perhaps. Or maybe this is more than legalistic abstraction. I’d like to suggest four reasons why moving this celebration from its appointed time to a convenient Sunday is an unfortunate choice.

FIRST, the church will not grow by cheapening discipleship. One of the charisms of catholic Christianity is the discipline of following the liturgical year. It is not asking “too much” to expect people to walk and pray in the rhythms of the church year. To be sure, for all kinds of perfectly good reasons, not every person will be able to worship every Sunday and celebrate every Principal Feast. But we do people a disservice when we erase the expectation. We’ve seen the results of “I’m OK, you’re OK” Christianity, and it looks like steady, persistent decline in the church and in individual spiritual lives. The fruits of a serious commitment to discipleship are a growing church and a thriving spiritual life. We should mark the feasts of the universal church at the appointed time and invite people to celebrate.

SECOND, clergy leaders need to learn that their personal preferences must take a distant back seat to the common prayer — to the discipline — of our church. Whether or not I “like” a particular practice is almost irrelevant. It is the height of clerical hubris to deprive congregations of the richness of our liturgical heritage based on the preferences of the clergy leader. So what if I offer a mass and only a few people come? All who attend will be immeasurably enriched by the experience.

THIRD, congregations might discover that there is a substantial number of people who are actually eager to celebrate the feast days of the church in due course. In the parish I served, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany on its day with a festive Holy Eucharist with all the trimmings: the Christmas/Epiphany pageant, the reading of the Epiphany proclamation, and the distribution of chalk for the blessing of homes in Epiphanytide. Our attendance was often comparable to our Sunday attendance, and many people expressed how delightful they found this occasion to be. It’s a fantastic way to cap off our celebration of the Christmas season. Before concluding “no one will come,” maybe it’s worth trying. This won’t work in every setting, but I’d bet that it will work on many places.

FOURTH, there’s no compelling reason to move the feast. If your congregation chooses not to celebrate all the Principal Feasts, so be it. Simply skip the Feast of the Epiphany and celebrate the Second Sunday of Christmas. One of the Gospel options is Matthew 2:1-12, so you can totally hear and preach about the journey of the magi and sing Epiphany hymns. You can mark this point in the salvation history without compromising the discipline of the church.

We would do well to trust the common prayer of the church. In almost every case, when rubrics are flouted and texts are “improved,” the result is theologically problematic and corrosive to the church’s life of common prayer. One recent seminary graduate explained to me that his liturgy professor had taught that the rubrics are “guidelines” to be followed to changed at will. Nonsense. The rubrics — the liturgical practice of the church — are some of the ligaments that bind together our practice into one universal church today and through all time.

This is not the place for a related argument, but since someone will likely bring it up in the comments, let me note once again that I am on record fully supporting and importance of constant evolution of our liturgical practice as the needs of the church and the world change. But nothing about that gives me as a priest the right willy-nilly to conform the liturgy of the church to my personal whims. We clergy owe the congregations we serve much more than to inflict our own whims on them. When I do this, it violates my ordination vows, weakens the church, and undermines the spiritual health of the congregation I serve.

So, yes, I think mucking around with the liturgical calendar is a big deal. Does God care? I don’t know. But what I do know is that the consistent witness of twenty millennia is that nearly every attempt to make Christianity easy has been an error, while the church is strongest wherever commitment to discipleship is highest. Let’s try a new plan for a couple of decades. Rather than ask less lest we offend anyone, how about if we try asking more and seeing of people rise to the occasion?

The magi went on a long journey to an uncertain destination at great cost. Perhaps if we were willing to travel a bit outside our own comfort, we too might find Jesus Christ to adore and worship.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. sierracanon permalink
    January 7, 2014 09:43

    My thought about your question… “Does God care??” I highly doubt it.

    • January 7, 2014 11:13

      I remember a friend of mine, whose mother was our Sunday school teacher, saying, “God doesn’t care what I wear church.” To which his mother replied, “No, he doesn’t. I care.”

      “Does God care?” is seldom the right question when it comes to these matters. Does God care when we celebrate the Epiphany? Probably not. But then again, does God care whether you have a good, well-paying, wholly satisfying job? Whether you have disposable income? Whether you get to go on your dream vacation? Probably not. Given Jesus’ own words, I highly doubt it.

      We have little access to the mind of God. All we really know is what we have received through Scripture and our own tradition.

      So you’re probably right about God’s concern for the day on which the Epiphany is observed. He probably doesn’t care whether we even mark the feast. But it matters nevertheless. Fr. Gunn is right that every instance of “anything-goes” Christianity has been a right proper failure at promoting a robust and broad faith, which is our sole concern here and in the church. We who would follow Jesus must practice that discipline: following, humbling ourselves and our small needs and desires before our calling as Christians. When Jesus talks about the exalted, he’s not speaking of heads of nations and Fortune 500 CEOs, but about anyone, man or woman, rich or poor, who exalts himself and places his own preferences at the center of the universe. It’s what Fr. Gunn means when he talks about “the height of clerical hubris.” And I would add that it’s the lowest form of clerical apathy to privilege a congregation’s legitimate but subsidiary commitments above the demands of Christian discipleship.

      Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Does God care about that? I would venture that he does.

  2. Rich+ permalink
    January 7, 2014 11:04

    I am a priest (retired Chaplain, USAF) who supplies a rural community. They only have liturgy on Sundays with supply priests — due to their small size and remote area. I note that there was a third optional reading (the Epiphany story) for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. Since this rural community would not have the option of a community celebration of Epiphany, I used the liturgy for 2nd Christmas with the third optional reading for that day…Oh yes, I preached on Epiphany. Seemed right for us.

  3. Pegram Johnson III + permalink
    January 8, 2014 12:59

    I think Fr. Rich’s response speaks to where many parishes are in our church. One size does not fit all. What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. The rationale to me smacks of legalism. I think the needs of the faithful is the primary issue. Some things are simply adiaphora and this issue is surely one of them. Liturgical reason trumps liturgical rubrics in my mind.

    • January 8, 2014 17:08

      I think, in this as with many things, that balance is most appropriate. Speaking personally, I have seen a very fine parish church deteriorate at the hands of a rector who monkeyed with the institutional life of his parish to suit the various whims of its members. Rhetorically and perhaps even intellectually, it was done in the name of “the needs of the faithful.” But practically speaking, it allowed the squeaky wheel – by which I mean those with the noisiest opinions – to receive the lion’s share of the grease, much to the detriment of the ordinary members of the parish, who decamped to the other Episcopal church in town, and thus to the detriment of the parish itself. What was wrongly taken as ministering to individual needs turned the church into the plaything of the pushy, who themselves eventually moved on to greener pastures.

      Bearing in mind Fr. Rich’s case, I would venture that a parish’s most urgent needs (urgent being those that a congregation will bring to its priest) are not usually related to the liturgy. A parish does not need to celebrate the Epiphany on January 5th, certainly not when there are fine readings to be read and fine sermons to be preached on the second Sunday after Christmas (when I heard a very good sermon this year on the last of the optional Gospel lessons, on Jesus’ listening in the temple). The faithful need counsel, comfort, and a ready understanding of the sacrifice needed to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Mucking up the liturgical calendar is usually done not in the name of great need, but in the name of expediency, which is always a danger.

      But this is not the real problem.

      The real problem is what we may call the particularization of the life of the church. As much as congregations need the specific, local attention of those who minister to them, so too do they need a connection to the life of what the Litany refers to as the holy Church universal. Parish churches are not self-sufficient amoebas, working principally to fulfill their own ends, but outposts, bunkers of the holy catholic and apostolic church in a hostile world. Clergymen and -women do their cures a great disservice when they fail to provide the larger vision as the context in which their charges may labor on in their questing after Christ.

      I would say finally that the rubrics get a bad name. What you call legalism I call the way we prevent the eternal tyranny of the present and the annoying from undermining our larger mission. Today, Joe Episcopalian needs X, so we do X. But tomorrow, Sally Episcopalian will need Y. So we will do Y. Does everyone get a turn, or do we instead chart a separate, more wholly workable, course? George Balanchine once said that “Classicism is enduring because it is impersonal,” and he was right. Liturgy is impersonal, and that very quality makes it universal, inclusive, and welcoming to all who may darken the door. No one gets everything they want (nor should anyone), but all may receive everything they need. As Mr. Spock knew, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When it comes to the church, the many includes not merely the people in the pews, but those outside, far and near, those past and those to come, and it is right that the people in the pews be brought into consciousness of the world beyond their immediate needs. Promoting such consciousness is our role in the church.

  4. Rich+ permalink
    January 8, 2014 23:58

    I agree it is essential to have a community structure to what we do as a church. Disregard for community structure can easily result in the degradation of community. That accepted — the worship experience in a large urban community (or cathedral) may need some adaptation in the rural setting. There is a great gap between personal preference (liturgical abuse) and pastoral adaptation based on well reasoned consciousness. We seek to study theology and liturgy so to make good decisions as pastors. If it was a matter of just accommodating everyone, then we fail as leaders (or better shepherds). A flock led by one who wants to make everyone happy…is a flock spread all over the hills and subject to wolves. Equally, it is important the the flock lives in the pasture and not just in pens.

    • January 9, 2014 21:21

      Eloquently said. I, for one, couldn’t agree more.

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