When shall we celebrate the Epiphany?
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 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.