Planning Worship for the Season after Epiphany, Year B
|Icon of the baptism of Christ. 1497. Public Domain||Fresco, The Transfiguration of Christ.
12th Century Macedonia. Public Domain.
The Season after Epiphany is one of the two “Ordinary” Times of the Christian year. Like the Season after Pentecost, this season is bracketed by “special” Sundays at the beginning and the end (Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration of the Lord), where all of the readings relate to one another with the gospel at the center. Unlike the Season after Pentecost, however, the readings for the Sundays in between are not completely unrelated to each other. Instead, we are offered two parallel, but not related streams of readings. The Old Testament reading is selected to correspond to the semi-continuous readings from the gospel (primarily Mark in Year B). The reading from the epistles (I Corinthians) is a second semi-continuous stream.
What drives this season? The same thing that drives all the rest in varying ways: discipleship.
Ritually, the Season after Epiphany begins with baptism and ends with Transfiguration. It thus portrays, in brief, the trajectory of the fullness of salvation God makes possible for all through Christ. Made new creatures and sent into mission from baptism, we hear and follow the call of Christ to become fully surrendered disciples. In his transfiguration, we see the promise of our own through the work of the Holy Spirit to transform and sanctify us now and the promise of resurrection and new creation in the age to come.
Tactically, for the mission of the church, the Season after Epiphany fulfills two roles in one. For those who may have been baptized or confirmed after catechesis during Advent and mystagogy during Christmas Season, it functions historically as a season of further discernment and deployment in ministry. For the rest of the church, it functions at the same time as a time to get ready for the primary season of baptismal preparation, Lent. In this role, it reminds us of our common grounding in discipleship (baptism), and bids us into a time of calling disciples (as Jesus does in the second Sunday of this season), and to firm up our own habits of discipleship (gospel) or church life (epistle) so we are as prepared as possible for the intense work of acting as midwife for those the Spirit is calling us to accompany through Lent toward baptism at Easter.
The first question for you as worship planners is what your congregation most needs to focus on primarily. With Lent coming up, no matter what, you need to be focusing somewhat on calling new persons to discipleship and preparing yourselves to help them prepare for baptism and life in Jesus Christ. But if you have folks who have just been baptized during Advent, Christmas Season or perhaps on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, you also have a strong need to be nurturing them in doctrine, calling, and ministry.
Depending on the capacity of your congregation, you may or may not not be able to focus on both equally. You should neglect neither. The balance of how you focus your efforts in worship and other supportive ministries is what you and other leaders in your congregation must decide and commit to as you prepare for these coming weeks.
The second question to ask yourselves, if you’re using the lectionary, is which stream of texts will help you keep that focus best.
The gospels are focused on calling to discipleship (weeks 2 and 3) and core elements of the saving work of God’s kingdom (deliverance and healing).
The epistle readings from I Corinthians focus on what it means to be the body of Christ capable of “surround[ing] [the newly baptized] with a community of love and forgiveness… pray[ing] for them that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” Such a community helps us recognize our bodies, individually and collectively, are a temple of the Holy Spirit (week 1) and practice holy detachment from entanglements in this world (week 2). The community creates an atmosphere of respect for the backgrounds and consciences of all, even while it embraces the liberty given in Christ (week 3), and it helps us live a disciplined, accountable life before God and one another (week 4).
Choose one stream. Or create your own that accomplishes what you need to do to support the newly baptized, call new disciples, and prepare them for baptism during Lent.
Then approach Transfiguration Sunday as the “bookend” and “segue” it is. As bookend, it points to Christ’s glorification and our resurrection with him. As segue, the instruction of the voice from the cloud sets our course for the discipling work of Lent: "This is my son, the beloved: Listen to him” (Mark 9:7).