When shall we celebrate the Epiphany?

January 6The 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 you 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 blessed 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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35 Responses

  1. Denyce says:

    Well said and should be taken seriously by all clergy.

    I for one wish to celebrate the feast days of the church in due course and will be wishing folks a blessed second Sunday of Christmas tomorrow . My own magi are nearing my manger and should arrive on schedule on Monday . And YES I would attend church on Epiphany ( and have) no matter the day of the week.

  2. Everett Lees says:

    The RCL doesn’t help matters when it offers the story of the Magi as an option.

  3. Jill says:

    I think this is spot-on, thank you!!

  4. Sarah Lawton says:

    Scott, would you object to a Sunday evening celebration – Epiphany Eve aka Twelfth Night? I’m sure that would be easier for most families whose kids will be back in the swing of school routines on Monday. I’m thinking a late afternoon or early evening Eucharist with station at the creche with the Magi, followed by a festive coffee hour or potluck supper complete with Epiphany cake (with gold coin or ring inside). A nice way to end the Christmas season and ring in Epiphany. Many will be returning to “ordinary time” on Monday by returning to jobs and school.

  5. K, Jeanne Person says:

    A pastoral consideration: A growing number of Episcopal parishes are relying on Sunday supply priests, because they cannot afford full-time or even part-time clergy. Some barely can afford the sacramental presence of a priest every Sunday. Would you deny these parishes to chance to celebrate, with Holy Eucharist, a principal feast that, by tradition if not by rubric, is sometimes transferred to the next Sunday? It’s lovely when parishes can have special services on special weekdays. Some of the big Manhattan parishes will have gorgeous liturgies with full choirs on January 6. A gift to the Christ Child, these services will be! The poor parish in Harlem I am serving on Sundays? We’ll welcome the magi a day early. Maybe a few poor shepherd folk will be lingering at the manger. Which, for that parish, will be just right.

  6. Daniel says:

    I won’t comment except to note the irony that the original email and its responses were being circulated amongst the leadership of the church at the same time candidates are being tested our their fitness for ordained ministry.

  7. Josh says:

    One other consideration is that for those of us in less rigorously liturgical churches—my own Methodist tradition is such a hybrid of both liturgical and evangelical streams—there is less attention paid to observances that cannot be transferred. Almost every feast in our rubrics is considered moveable: I venture that Ash Wednesday and Christmas are the two that are not and in the last few years I’ve seen movement (?!) on those two.

    So your crazy ecumenical cousins from the Protestant branch often yield unintended consequences with their liturgical tinkering. Too often our changes and accommodations are made without considering the impact, such as you’ve outlined here, on ecumenical relationships within the Body. Still work to do in that regard.

  8. Louis Weil says:

    Scott: I very much appreciate this article. Thank you. I am wondering if any/many Episcopal clergy are aware and are being influenced by the fact that in the Roman Catholic calendar, shifting Epiphany to the “nearest” Sunday (hence, not necessarily the Sunday after January 6) has become standard practice, and whether, perhaps, they are influenced by this. Or, what is my suspicion, that the attitude behind this which has led Rome to follow this pattern for a series of major feasts — well, yes, I think Good Friday is still celebrated on a Friday!!! — that attitude being that for the majority of people who attend church regularly (not to mention those who do not) it has become unrealistic to expect them to come to church any day other than Sunday. The practice distresses me because it seems to indicate the triumph of utility over symbolic/ritual enactment — and when we go that route, it has an erosive effect on the nature of the liturgy itself.

  9. Greg Brown says:

    Scott, I really hear what you’re saying, especially from the point of view of our being a church held together by common worship and common practice, and from the point of view that my wanting to change something could be sort of selfish in the face of a community. I’m just troubled that people will read a decision to stick with Epiphany on Epiphany as a statement that the Epiphany actually happened on the 6th, smacking of a little Biblical literalism. How can we communicate, especially in the face the pastoral challenges Jeanne (above) presents?

  10. K. Jeanne Person says:

    Also influencing a choice to transfer Epiphany might be that the Revised Common Lectionary does not give Matthew 2:1-12 as a Gospel option for the Second Sunday after Christmas.
    And yes, Louis, apologies, I meant the “closest” Sunday, not the “next”.

  11. Scott Gunn says:

    Sarah, I think that could be lovely — call it Twelfth Night or whatever. We did our Epiphany service at 6 p.m., I think, to make it as convenient as possible for families with children. If it had fallen on a Monday, Sunday evening would have looked tempting.

    K. Jeanne, your example for pastoral consideration is interesting. I think there are lots of options here. They could celebrate with a service not led by a priest. They could go to a nearby parish. A priest could offer her or his time as a gift. I think we should not let our common practice be guided by the “hard case” examples. There is always a “but what if” lurking out there. Also, when a parish gets to the point (and I’m not saying your example parish is like this) that it can only sustain Sunday morning worship, I’m not sure it makes sense to continue the congregation. There must surely be more to the Christian corporate life than a single hour together on Sunday morning.

  12. Scott Gunn says:

    Oh, and one more, K. Jeanne, the Episcopal lectionary (which is RCL adapted) does in fact allow Matthew 2:1-12. It’s the generic RCL which does not allow this, but that’s not our lectionary.

  13. Scott Gunn says:

    Josh, I was writing for an Episcopal audience with this particular bit of curmudgeonly church-geekery. I do not expect that all Christians are bound by the same disciplines, and I don’t think the presence or absence of a particular discipline from others need necessarily be detrimental to others (to other communions or denominations).

    That said, I think it’s commendable that you would attend to the impact of one’s practice on others. We should all be so mindful.

  14. Magdalena Aders says:

    I can see both sides of this. Possible Via Media solution of sorts? In parishes where there is a shortage of time for the priest e.g. twinned parishes, part-time clergied parishes etc. ….could there not be a vigil kept led by a deacon or lay reader on the actual feast? I am a great aficionado of having something available on occasions such as Ember Days, Rogation Days, major saint’s days, the early days of Holy Week et al. as well as major feasts. There are wonderful things available in The Book of Occasional Services, The Anglican Service Book etc. We all love the Eucharist, being Anglicans, but it’s part of our heritage to also love the Word. (Amazing how many cradle Episcopalians, brought up on Morning Prayer every week except for Communion Sunday, won’t come out anymore if there’s no priest available and it’s ‘only’ Morning Prayer….one of the most beautiful offices in the Prayer Book). All-or-nothing too often results in the latter, I’m afraid.

  15. Chris Arnold says:

    Roman Catholic and evangelical practice aside, RCL aside, part time clergy aside, we have a discipline in *our* prayer book. The feast is Sunday vespers until Monday vespers. Every effort should me made to keep the calendar, and all the rubrics, as faithfully as is possible.

  16. K. Jeanne Person says:

    One could ask whether RCL adapted is authentically RCL. And whether those parishes who, at the request of TEC are following the RCL, understand that there is such as a thing as RCL adapted (in a very few instances). It’s very confusing!

    As for whether it makes sense to continue to a congregation: Gosh, that’s contextual. In the case of the Harlem parish, they have Sunday supply only for a season as they prepare for a new rector. In 2015, when the new rector is in place, we’ll see what they decide about Epiphany. They call themselves the “We are not afraid” parish. Maybe that includes not being afraid to break (perhaps outdated) BCP rubrics.

    We really need a new BCP, for all sorts of reasons, including clarity about the lectionary!

    P.S. I did celebrate Christmas eve pro bono. Don’t tell the bishop! And they did a New Year’s Eve service without me. Wonder if it was Eve of Holy Name.

  17. The thing is: many laypeople, including myself, are observing the calendar already, via the Daily Office and online discussions and postings on social media of all kinds. In other words, we’re already on the schedule of feasts and fasts; the local parishes weren’t celebrating them, so we’re doing it ourselves now.

    So I would beg parish priests: please don’t transfer the feasts, if you don’t keep the feasts on their actual days. We will miss out on the regular Sunday readings if you do this – and each part of the Church Year is valuable. Each thing contributes to the whole, and when it gets skipped, people miss out.

    In fact, IMO the best thing you could do would be to encourage your own parishioners to start keeping the feasts on their own; it’s very easy to do these online at a hundred different sites – and of course, the BCP has everything we need anyway. That way, nobody will miss the stuff that used to be transferred, and everybody will have the benefit of experiencing the entire Church Calendar, in its fullness.

  18. (I would, BTW, highly recommend the website Full Homely Divinity – written and maintained by (at least one) Episcopal priest(s) – as an excellent source for suggestions about ways to keep the feasts and fasts at home.

    It discusses various customs, offers hymns and prayers and even liturgies people can use at home with their families, and even includes recipes! The left sidebar is always updated so that it points to upcoming feasts.)

  19. Eric Bonetti says:

    Perhaps the issue here is not congregations and clergy failing to obey the strictures of the BCP, but rather of our governance failing to keep pace with the times. Some things — like the states’ rights arguments that supremacy rests in the dioceses — are clearly false, and I will uphold the canon law to the utmost of my ability. The day we celebrate Epiphany? Not so much.

    Just celebrate Epiphany.

  20. Dale McNeill says:

    Thank you for this post. I am fortunate to have been a part of several parishes in the 30 plus years that I’ve been Episcopalian, parishes large and small, quite low in practice and quite high, all of which kept the major feasts on their appointed days (at least mostly). I think there is a richness in the community that does so. Even if it’s that some of the members are praying and celebrating and others are not able to (often enough I haven’t been able to attend a weekday service), that’s still fine. For me, it’s not such much about rules (though I see that point) as about offering these celebrations to the larger community. At my very small parish in Queens, we often had visitors on weekday services on major feasts, many of whom we later saw on Sundays, many of whom already attended other Episcopal, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran churches.

  21. Louis Bannister says:

    At the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York, we are still in Christmas. Tomorrow (Monday) evening we will gather for Holy Eucharist followed by a potluck dinner as our way of celebrating the Day.

    This is one of those times, for me, when something “makes sense” while I am existing here in the Diocese of Albany where I will say openly that not much makes sense in this place.

  22. Greg Brown says:

    Scott, maybe changing the Major Feast we’re talking about puts this question in greater relief. Would you rally the same argument about All Saints’ Day? The BCP lists three Major Feasts by date, but the parishes I’ve known (almost all with primarily Sunday worship) transfer All Saints’ to a Sunday for one primary reason: to do baptisms at the main service. (There’s a separate aside here about doing baptisms on certain days, but that’s another conversation.) My sense – limited though it is – is that no one sees that transfer as controversial. So why do we see transferring Epiphany as controversial?

  23. Jonathan Chesney says:

    I think the point about church not just being a Sunday morning thing is especially important. This is something we talk about all the time, but when it comes to the point of actually living into it, especially where worship is concerned, it seems to get a lot more difficult in the face of other constraints (sometimes legitimate, sometimes of convenience.)

    I think it is interesting (and to be honest, distressing,) when it seems that when a pastoral need and the discipline of our liturgy appear to come into conflict, the liturgy is often the first to go w/out much thought or unease (at least as it appears to me in many cases.) I want to really applaud the idea of exploring different options, as Scott suggests above. There are lots of ways to approach any pastoral need… and while I can understand the notion that breaking rubrics might in fact be what one is called to do in some cases, I think it that is often less than happens; my hope is that it would be a last resort after prayer, consideration, and creative attempts at a both/and solution. I suspect most situations will have any number of different possible approaches that don’t require ignoring the BCP, but simply some time, effort, and people who care enough to work at it.

    I want to reaffirm the notion that many people actually want and value being asked to commit and discipleship that costs something (like time.) In my experience and anecdotal evidence, it is not convenience that many people, many seekers want in their spiritual lives, but transformation and value. Those things come through cost and many people I talk to these days, especially the young people active in church leadership and life, know and desire this. Many of us want discipline, want to walk in the rhythms of the church which is so much larger than us, want to try to conform the pattern of our lives to it, instead of the other way around.

  24. relling says:

    I am really glad that you have brought this up. I have noticed this with respect to other feasts, which have been moved to a convenient Sunday. I have always felt this to be a mistake. I noticed during my travels in England that even the smallest Episcopal church celebrated the Church calendar as appointed, so why our bigger churches feel compelled to move things I do not understand.

  25. K. Jeanne Person says:

    May I challenge the assumption that parishes who have worship services only on Sundays are only “church” on Sundays? By no means! I know several vibrant parishes on NYC who worship only Sundays, but they spend many hours on Sunday together, in fellowship and in outreach, and who spend every other day of the week in mission and ministry, often serving their neighborhoods, often the poor. These parishes, with small budgets, especially if they are relying on Sunday supply clergy, might celebrate Epiphany on Sunday, gloriously, then allocate scarce resources to Ecclesia, the shelter, the food pantry, the Epiphany party for kids in the projects, all with lay leadership. Let’s be careful how we define church.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      K. Jeanne, I’m not sure where you read that assumption. I for one wouldn’t say that. Perhaps my earlier comment was confusing: what I said was that if a congregation reaches the point where its only activity is a Sunday gathering for worship, it might be time to consider its future.

  26. Greg Brown, here’s a citation from the Calendar section of the BCP: “All Saints’ Day may always be observed on the Sunday following November 1, in addition to its observance on the fixed date.”

    In fact, it is, I think, the only feast that can be observed twice.

  27. The sad thing is that everybody who celebrated Epiphany today missed the terrific collect for The Second Sunday After Christmas Day:

    O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
    and ever. Amen.

    It’s definitely worth keeping on the schedule for that one, I think!

  28. K. Jeanne Person says:

    Scott, yes, I was reacting to “reaches a point where it can only sustain Sunday worship,” which in the context of your argument might be read as “where it can’t afford mid-week services required by BCP. ” Thanks for clarifying. But even more I was responding to Jonathan Chesney, who raises a good question about exactly how to make church more than a Sunday morning thing. Are midweek liturgies necessary?
    Thanks for a good discussion, which is helping us all really to think about our choices. I will stand by that of the good parish in Harlem.

  29. Greg Brown says:

    Barbara, you’re right; I missed that paragraph about All Saints’ being movable! It begs the question, though: what makes a Major Feast like All Saints’ movable, and keeps a feast like Epiphany from being movable? Why does it seem like we have two tiers of Major Feasts?

  30. John Richmond says:

    I am in basic agreement with everything related to keeping Holy Days on their own days, and basing everything on worst-case scenarios is not always wise. And…and, it is one thing to write about attending services in a nearby parish church when one is in NYC or Chicago, e.g., and another thing altogether when one is in, oh–central IL, where I am a supply priest, and parts of the Diocese of Springfield (where I am canonically resident) are like a black hole for Episcopalians. States farther west offer even more extreme distances. Also, in some churches, lay people are quite prepared to lead worship, and in others, not so much. I once supplied in a parish where no one knew how to turn on all the lights in the nave and sanctuary–or even keep the coffee in stock for Sun. morning–because “Father” had always done that. I would not be uncomfortable with an “eve of” [fill in the Holy Day] approach in many cases, though I think that liturgical and pastoral practice are *best* served when they can be, well, practiced as intended. But sometimes the pastoral tips the balance. It is also true that we might wonder about parishes that can barely keep six or seven people together for common gatherings. There are a lot of them out there, though, and many of them are tough as nails, and are a long time in the facing reality, or dying, or even–best case and most hopeful scenario–rising to life again. I make it a habit to go with hope, but it’s tough.

  31. Jonathan Chesney says:

    hey K. Jeanne,

    thanks for saying more. Didn’t mean to make that implication and agree with you regarding that assumption you caution against. The context you lay out for a parish makes sense and I certainly understand making due and doing as best as can be done w/ the resources available. I do think midweek liturgies are necessary for the great feasts, IF the parish has the resources to sustain it. As a great feast though, for me, I would think it would still remain a high priority. There are only 7, after all, and I remain sure creative approaches could abound. But I can imagine a context where even that was beyond means, in the face of other critical ministries, like those you name, and my thoughts on the matter went more to those who do have the resources and likely would have the potential interest, as hypothesized in this blog post. Definitely agree that church-beyond-sunday doesn’t just mean worship beyond Sunday.

  32. Norm Morford says:

    Sorry, dude, but I don’t think you know that the great majority of Episcopal churches are very small in very small communities. This Sunday, obviously Christmas 2, Epiphany was celebrated in an unnamed small Episcopal in a small spot in a western state and the homily was presented by a very well educated man of scientific training and I was very blessed to be present. Perhaps your point is well taken for large metro area congregations, but I can not believe we rise or fall based on your notions.

  33. Magdalena Aders says:

    I didn’t note a response to the thought I posed, as it popped up in the middle of the lectionary discussion. So once again I posit: even for a congregation of a few, cannot deacons and laity offer prayer services on the feast days and other days of observance on the calendar, if clergy is not able to do so? I did not mention that I am a second-year diaconal student; I have been privileged to help in lay ministry for many years which has included assisting with, leading or co-leading a variety of prayer services. This work has been one of the things to point me to my current calling. Instead of railing at the clergy, can we not gather together as baptized Christians (remember the early Church?) and help to provide celebration and commemoration as best we can? (Remember the four branches of ministers: bishops, priests, deacons, and laity!)

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