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Observing Epiphany on the Sunday Before

by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord is a festival that has become virtually lost since the revision of our lectionary and church calendar the 1970s. While Epiphany has always been assigned the date of Jan. 6, in the era just before the present calendar revision, Epiphany tended to be transferred to the Sunday following, thus becoming an annual part of the Church's celebration and helping to close the Christmas season.

 

These days, however, the Sunday after Jan. 6 has been reserved for the Baptism of Our Lord. Thus an ancient and important part of our Christmas cycle has tended to be lost because it falls (more often than not) upon a weekday.  And yet so much of the Epiphany season, its hymns and its lessons, is carried forth with the themes that are presented first in the feast that gives the season its name: the theme of light and manifestation embodied in the star and the magi.

 

Given the usual option of one to two "Sundays after Christmas" (which tend not to excite the mind or the soul nor move the Christmas celebration forward toward its fitting conclusion), I have followed the tradition of transferring Epiphany backward to the Sunday before Jan. 6 so that it may be fittingly observed each year by the faithful. Exception to this rule would be if Jan. 6 is on Saturday, in which case transfer it forward to Sunday Jan. 7, something that you will find our friends in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Communions do. That would mean skipping Baptism of Our Lord for one year.

 

Historically, Epiphany holds the distinction of being the only weekday festival that can be transferred to a Sunday before its date instead of the Sunday after, which is the usual practice for transferring. It's unfortunate that none of our current Lutheran rubrics or manuals point out this fact. However, it may still be seen in the rubrics of the Roman Catholic Church (The Sacramentary, 1973, p.64).

 

Admittedly, making such a transfer means that the bulletin cover and lectionary insert never agree with the lessons for the day. But then I feel that the day is more important than following the advice of the church publishing house. Accordingly, I usually discard the lesson insert for the day and either do without a lesson insert or copy one from a year when Epiphany fell on a Sunday (date whited out, of course). If you are already copying the lessons into a full service bulletin, then you have already solved the problem.

 

 

AN ORDER FOR EPIPHANY SUNDAY

 

The hymns for Epiphany Sunday should be a mixture of Epiphany and Christmas hymns. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, I generally substitute sung service parts with Christmas carols during Sundays after Christmas.

 

Begin the service without confession, since this is a festival of the holy people of God.

 

Entrance Hymn   "O Morning Star, How Fair."

Apostolic Greeting (printed out in the bulletin), followed by:

 

Kyrie for Epiphany:

A. In peace, let us pray to the Lord.
C. Lord, have mercy.

 

A. By the holy mystery of the Word made flesh, let us pray to the Lord.
C. Lord, have mercy.

 

A. By the lowly submission of the Maker of the world to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, let us pray to the Lord.
C. Lord, have mercy.

 

A. By the humble nativity of the King of light in the manger of Bethlehem, let us pray to the Lord.
C. Lord, have mercy.

 

A. By the splendid manifestation of the King of glory to the shepherds and the magi, let us pray to the Lord.
C. Lord, have mercy.

 

A. For the peace that His birth brings, for our salvation, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.
C. Lord, have mercy.

 

A. Help, save, comfort and defend us, O Incarnate Word.
C. Amen

 

Hymn of Praise   "Angels We Have Heard on High"

Prayer of the Day

 

First Lesson:  Isaiah 60:1-6

Second Lesson:  Ephesians 3:2-12

Sequence Hymn   "As with Gladness Men of Old"

Gospel:  St. Matthew 2:1-12

Sermon

Hymn of the Day   "The First Noel"

Nicene Creed

Prayer of the Church

Peace

Offering.

 

For the Offertory Hymn, use at least stanza three of "What Child Is This," which connects with the gifts of the magi: "So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh...."

 

Offertory Prayer

Great Thanksgiving

Preface for Epiphany

Sanctus

Eucharistic Prayer (ELW III or LBW IV)

Our Father

 

Distribution. Use Christmas carols for distribution hymns. (Don't use "Lamb of God" on this occasion, and perhaps not for the rest of this season. Hold it off for reintroduction at Ash Wednesday and Lent.)

 

After communion, make sure you use the canticle "Lord, Now You Let" (Nunc Dimittis) on this day and throughout the Christmas and Epiphany Seasons, because of its association with the presentation of the Christ Child to Simeon and Anna and its textual references to light. Or you may substitute the beautiful hymn version of this canticle "O Lord, Now Let Your Servant."

 

Post-Communion prayer

Benediction

Dismissal

Closing Hymn   "Silent Night"