Millions of Christians throughout the centuries in all parts of the world have found the use of the Christian calendar to be a helpful tool in their worship of God and their development as disciples of Christ. Perhaps an equal number of Christians have been ignorant of the Christian calendar and its value for discipleship development.
People in the free church tradition may have the best of two worlds, able to draw from the structure of the liturgical tradition and infusing that with the flexibility offered by the free church tradition. The seasons of Epiphany and Lent provide the opportunity to experiment with these possibilities.
Epiphany identifies both the day and the season of worship that begins on January 6 and continues four to six weeks, depending upon whether Easter is early or late. Epiphany is the second major worship season of the Christian year.
The word comes from the Greek language and means manifestation. This season of worship focuses upon events in the life of Jesus that proclaim and demonstrate the good news of redemption and reconciliation for all people.
The Christian calendar can be confusing because it involved putting the events of the life of Christ and the Church on the Roman calendar while also maintaining some aspects of the Jewish calendar.
The design of the Jewish calendar was based on the moon, and the Roman calendar was based on the sun. Passover and Pentecost were fixed according to the moon’s phase. Christians maintained these important days and added Easter. Christmas and Epiphany were established as fixed dates according to the sun.
Many of us in the free church tradition know little about Epiphany, either as a day or as a season of worship. It originated in the Eastern Church and actually is older than Christmas, having been mentioned by Clement of Alexandria as early as 200 AD.1
The early Church began with the Resurrection as the stackpole around which the followers of Christ gathered. As time passed after the resurrection of Christ and His return was delayed, the Church began to trace the ministry and life of Jesus backwards from the resurrection. The manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah came into prominence before emphasis was placed on His birth. Thus Epiphany was celebrated earlier than Christmas.
Epiphany History
The Eastern Church picked up on a few lines in Matthew’s Gospel to emphasize the journey the Magi made to see Jesus. January 6 was designated centuries ago as the day when these men arrived in Bethlehem from the East, claiming to have followed a star they had seen rising on the horizon.
Magi originally were a priestly caste among the Medes. Later they were recognized as teachers of religion and science among the Medes and Persians with special interest in astrology and medicine. Apparently because of their roles as teachers, the Magi became identified as wise men. Given the distance from Babylon, Mede, and Persia to Bethlehem, the means of transportation, and the travel conditions of the time, it is unlikely that the Magi were able to rush over to see Jesus the day after His birth.
Many scholars place the birth of Jesus sometime between 9 B.C. and 4 B.C. Dionysius Exiguus of Rome developed the Christian calendar in the sixth century and failed to synchronize it with the Roman calendar.
Historical documentation has established the death of Herod the Great, assigned Roman ruler of Judea, in 4 B.C. Matthew uses the word for child to refer to the one born king. This suggests that Jesus was beyond one year of age when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. Herod’s decree that all male children two years and younger in Bethlehem and its suburbs be killed is a second indication that Jesus was beyond infancy when the Magi arrived.
Matthew’s few words about the Magi do not tell us how many there were nor that they were kings. Yet we sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” as a musical presentation of this passage. Tertullian indicated in the second century that the Magi were kings, and Origen suggested in the third century that there were three of them.
Because three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were given, many have agreed with Tertullian and Origen that three kings brought one gift each to Jesus. Later, these assumed kings acquired the names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.
In 1158 three bodies were found in the Church of St. Eustrogia near Milan that were presumed to be the bodies of the Magi. When Emperor Barbarossa captured Milan, he took the bodies to Germany and deposited them in the Cologne Cathedral in 1164, and the Shrine of the Three Kings of Cologne became a famous place of pilgrimage. An expanded legend developed through the centuries based on a few words in Matthew’s Gospel.
The early Church found in Matthew’s record some aspects about the life of Jesus that needed emphasis. Eastern Christianity developed a strong emphasis on the birth of Jesus, highlighted the visit of the Magi as an event rich with symbolism and identified it as Epiphany.
The Magi represented the Gentile world, and their coming to Jesus demonstrated for the Church that Jesus was the Messiah for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews. Their visit offered evidence that by dwelling in the human flesh of Jesus, God was God for all people; there was to be neither Jew nor Greek.
Although Epiphany began in Eastern Christianity, it was adopted in the Western Church in Southern Gaul by the middle of the fourth century. It was kept as a festival separate from Christmas by the Western Church.
Epiphany became the festival celebrated to commemorate the coming of God in Christ to the Gentiles and, thus, to all people. It became the festival in the life of the Church to celebrate the universality of the Gospel.
For the Christian calendar purist, carols are to be sung beginning on Christmas and continuing through the twelve days of Christmas ending on Epiphany, January 6. Advent is observed by the purist solely as a season of preparation for the coming of God in Christ, and the celebration of His coming is delayed until Christmas; then twelve days of celebration erupt.
Twelfth Night, the evening preceding Epiphany, became a time of merry-making marking the end of the Christmas holiday. A cake was prepared and eaten each of the twelve days of Christmas. The Twelfth Cake was an ornamental cake, containing a bean or coin. Whoever got the bean or coin became the “King” or “Queen” of the festivities.
Epiphany Practice
Epiphany as a season of worship has been introduced in two ways to the members of the church where I am pastor. Having focused on the seasons of Advent and Lent for several years, we decided to expand our understanding and celebration of the Christian year by celebrating Epiphany.
Congregants had shared in a variety of sermon series through the years of my ministry with them. In a sense our first celebration of Epiphany was a worship series that focused on the ministry and life of Jesus, proclaiming and demonstrating a ministry of redemption and reconciliation.
The theme for our first celebration of Epiphany was The Lasting Words of Jesus. We explored words that Jesus spoke at different stages in His life, asking why they have lasted through the centuries, and then probed them, searching for what they have to say to us in the 1980’s.
The Sunday closest to January 6 we focused on Matthew’s words about the Magi. The following four Sundays we focused on stages in Jesus’ growth and development.
“The Searching Words of Jesus” identified His trip to the Temple at age twelve, pointing out His inquisitive nature and His statement to Joseph and Mary, “Did you not know I would be about my father’s business?” (Luke 2:49).
Jesus’ baptism was the outward, visible sign of His inward commitment to ministry. Although John resisted baptizing Jesus, Jesus insisted by saying that His baptism was “fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). These represented “The Committing Words of Jesus.”
Following His baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. Much of that time was spent exploring the possible methods He would use in His ministry. Jesus was tempted to take the shortcuts of security, power, and popularity, but He resisted them. His responses to the evil one recorded in Matthew and Luke represent “The Struggling Words of Jesus.”
Jesus’ practical ministry began when He returned from the wilderness. There are multiple “Ministering Words of Jesus,” but the outline of His ministry is recorded in Luke 4:16-18, the passage from Isaiah which Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth.
The purpose of Epiphany is to see the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah for all the world.
Our music minister chooses hymns, anthems and solos to accentuate, highlight, and convey the theme the staff has chosen for Epiphany. We decide together on Scripture passages that undergird the theme for the season and the subtheme for each specific service. Prayers, responsive readings, and litanies also help convey the mood of celebration and the universal appeal and application of the Gospel.
Our discovery of Epiphany and the celebration of worship has enriched our congregation. During what often has been the depressing month of January, our January worship services have been uplifting and celebrative, causing our spirits to be raised. We have discovered a new resource to aid us in being God’s representatives in the world and in exploring ways that we can be partners with God in the ministry of redemption and reconciliation.
Focusing on Epiphany may force you to deal with some biblical texts that you have avoided for too long. I recommend Epiphany to you as a season of worship. You will find it enriching both for your congregation and for yourself.
The development of the Christian year has four guiding principles that are helpful to keep in mind when designing worship services and sermons related to the Christian calendar. Reiteration is important because religious constancy can come through faithful repetition. Creative repetition helps bring the meaning of a season to life for worshipers and enables us to put fresh contents into old forms.
Following the Christian calendar assists worshipers with appropriateness. There is a time to dance and a time to mourn. Holy Week, when our focus is on the passion and death of Christ, is an inappropriate time to celebrate a wedding. Worshipers’ moods will be upon Christ’s agony, and they will have difficulty celebrating with a couple in their marriage.
Giving serious consideration to the Christian calendar also assists the church in separation. We are to be in the world but not of the world. We are to be unlike the culture while we remain in the culture.
During Lent, when the culture may be gearing up for sales, materialistic explosion, and the exploitation of feelings of selfishness, the Church can be focusing on the inner life, the development of disciples, and the importance of selflessness.
A cursory view of the Christian calendar quickly reveals an enormous proportion of time being given to preparation. Much more time is given preparing for the festivals than in celebrating them. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter.
“The whole year may be seen as continual preparation for the coming religious event, which frequently takes one high day following a long season of rigorous self-examination and mental conditioning.”1 Preparation is an important guiding principle in the development of the Christian year, and it is the major preliminary to any festive time.
Designing Lenten Worship Services
Soon after my first effort in leading a congregation through a Lenten season of worship, I shared what I had done with a former seminary professor who reacted, “You did that in a Baptist church?” Preparation, cooperation, and planning are essential to avoid the type of resistance by members that my former professor verbalized.
The worship committee became helpful assistants to me in developing a Lenten season of worship. I discussed with them the meaning and purpose of Lent, asking both for their reactions and what they anticipated would be the reactions of other members of the congregation. The committee was extremely responsive to the idea, expected the majority of the congregation to be responsive, and anticipated some would be reluctant and resistant. All of the above occurred.
We had six seminar-styled sessions prior to Lent to discuss the meaning and purpose of the season. We also designed discussion groups for three age groups — children, youth and adult — to meet on the Sunday evenings of Lent and discuss the meaning and relevance of the morning worship services to the worshipers.
The Meaning of Lent
Lent is a forty-day season of fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Easter eve. Forty is a symbolic, biblical number that does not include the Sundays because Sunday is a feast day, the little Easter.
The children of Israel were in the wilderness forty years. Moses was on the mountain forty days receiving the law of God. After baptism, Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness preparing for His ministry. Jesus’ wilderness experience serves as the model for the Lenten season for Christians.
The season of Lent originated as a period of intense catechetical instruction and preparation through special prayer and fasting for those candidates who, on Easter eve, would be baptized into the Paschal Mystery and who on Easter morn, for the first time, would participate in doing the Eucharist.2 The first mention of Lent being a forty day feast occurred in the Canons of Nicea in 326 A.D.3
The Purpose of Lent
The mood and intent of Lent are preparation and training. In the first centuries of Christianity, a three-year period of instruction and training was required of one who wanted to unite with Christ and the church. The last thing the catechumens were taught was the Lord’s Prayer. Their baptism came on Easter eve at the end of the three year instructional period and heightened the drama of Easter.
Through the centuries the three-year instructional period has been reduced to forty days or less. In many churches the season of Lent remains a time of instruction and training for those seeking to become Christians. Baptism is a part of the Easter celebration. In earlier centuries, when excommunication occurred often in the Church, Lent was the time when one did penance for his grave sin, sought absolution, and was reaccepted into the Church.
Lent also is for the devoted Christian. Through the centuries Christians have seen the need for deeper spiritual growth and development. For many Christians Lent has become the season when they seriously and rigorously attempt to develop a more mature faith in God.
The initial emphasis of the Lenten season is rededication and self-discipline. To be undisciplined is to be a slave to a tribunal of tyrants — one’s appetites and self-indulgences. “We keep Lent because people like you and me who thought they were following good and honorable reasons crucified the Christ. We keep Lent as an attempt to call all men to repentance.”4
The Days of Lent
Within the six-week season of Lent are several special days. The season begins with Ash Wednesday, which is the fortieth day before Easter excluding Sundays. This year it is February 17.
Ash Wednesday is preceded by Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday). The original intent was to eat all the meat and fat in the house before Lent began so people would not be tempted to break their commitments to fast during Lent.
The Sundays of Lent are days for corporate worship that are to reflect the mood and intention of Lent. All aspects of worship are to assist in drawing the contrast between penitence and celebration, between Lent and Easter. During Lent we symbolically enter the wilderness with Jesus, and corporate worship is to guide us in our wilderness experience.
Lenten worship is to help worshipers prepare for resurrection by examining their relationship with God. By the end of Lent they are ready to bury their old lives and be raised to live resurrected lives on Easter.
Holy Week
The week preceding Easter commemorates the last week of Jesus’ life and has been identified as Holy Week because people intensify their preparation for Easter and their identification with Christ. Holy Week is not only an affirmation of what happened to Christ, it is a call for people to experience their own wholeness as a result of their repentance, confession, forgiveness, preparation, and identification.
Through the centuries Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday have evolved as especially significant days. Palm Sunday represents the traditional day that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding an ass, with people placing palm branches in front of Him.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the day that Jesus shared His last meal with His disciples and urged them to remember Him whenever they met and ate together. Maundy is derived from the Latin, meaning command. The Latin Mass was sung on Maundy Thursday with the words, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”
Good Friday symbolizes the day of the crucifixion of Christ. It is a day of solemn fasting and prayer to remember the tragic death of Christ.
The Practice of Lent
I have found the development and adoption of a theme for the Lenten season to be a valuable way to help people focus on their spiritual discipline during this season. Some of the themes we have used are Abundant Living, Sins That Crucify, The Crosswords of Jesus, and Distorting the Image of God.
Every effort is made to coordinate the hymns, solos, Scripture lessons, prayers, and sermons to address different aspects of the theme, to provide continuity through the season, and to provide unity for each worship service and for worship during the entire season.
Distorting the Image of God was our Lenten theme in 1987. We explored through worship a variety of ways that we distort God’s image in ourselves. Titles for the worship services included: “We Are Dust and To Dust We Shall Return,” “God Sides With the Oppressed,” “Worshiping the One Who Created Us Male and Female,” “Worshiping the God of All,” “Worshiping the Boundless God,” and “Preparing the Way.”
To provide continuity for the season, we used portions of Psalm 51 — “Create in me a clean heart, O God” — using three choral settings of that text as choral calls to worship. Joel 2:12-13 was adapted as a call to confession and was used as unison, responsive, individual, and antiphonal calls to confession.
Sermons were developed to deal with various ways that we distort God’s image in us. “I’m Gonna Live Forever?” dealt with our mortality and our efforts to deny or defy death. Either approach distorts God’s image in us because we are created mortal beings. “The Poor Are With Us” wrestled with the issue of poverty and pointed out how often we are not with the poor.
“The Loneliness of Lust” dealt with our abuse of our sexuality and our attempts at selfish gratification by using others. “When a Relationship Is Only Skin Deep” focused on racism as a distortion of God’s image.
“To Know No Boundaries” examined greed and the enticement of materialism to grab all the gusto we can. “From Cheers to Jeers” explored what happened to the crowds during the last week of Jesus’ life — how they were so strongly in favor of Him on Sunday and so opposed to Him by Friday. It is that way with each of us. We distort God’s image in us by turning on God when He does not conduct business as we want and expect.
Lent is a valuable season of both public and private worship. Designing and conducting worship services that guide people in self-examination of their lives as disciples of Christ can help them to deny themselves, take up their crosses daily, and follow Christ.
This approach encourages worshipers to rehearse in public worship the way life is supposed to be lived. Then they can put into practice what they rehearsed on Sunday. The emphasis on preparation and introspection makes the celebration of Easter more exciting, enables worshipers to experience resurrection, and may result in their living resurrected lives.
1. George M. Gibson, The Story of the Christian Year, (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1945), p. 78.
2. William Pregnall, Laity and Liturgy, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 57.
3. F. L. Cross, Editor, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 797.
4. Charles L. Wallis, Editor, Lenten-Easter Sourcebook, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1961), p. 25.

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