- Revised Common Lectionary Readings for New Year's Eve/Day, The Holy Name of Jesus, and Epiphany
- Worship Notes
- Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship
Where to Begin?
December 31 and January 1 this year mark a "grand liturgical collision!" There are many possibilities for celebrating in the Christian calendar. December 31 in Methodist heritage has been a Watch Night, sometimes involving a rigorous service of covenant renewal and/or baptismal reaffirmation. For Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and some others in the broader Western tradition, January 1 is The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, commemorating his naming on the day of his circumcision (the eighth day).
For United Methodists, January 1 this year is celebrated as Epiphany Sunday, the Sunday nearest and prior to the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). Next Sunday (the first Sunday after Epiphany), we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.
Given all these choices, what should you plan to do?
First, keep in mind that major feasts and Sundays always take precedence over others. So for your principle services on Sunday morning, celebrate Epiphany. Readings and helps for Epiphany are included below.
That still leaves you multiple options for what you may do on Saturday night (December 31) or at other times on Sunday (January 1).
Dan Benedict's article on Watch Night and Covenant Services provides very helpful guidance. As Dan notes, unless you have in place a process for following up on covenant pledges (like a strong set of Covenant Discipleship groups), the Covenant Service may become more of an exercise in heritage worship than actually accomplishing what it is designed to do. If you do have such systems in place, by all means, go for it!
This means that if your congregation is like most United Methodist congregations, you may wish to think about December 31 as a prayer vigil/watch night related either to New Year's Day or, if you have the opportunity to celebrate with local Lutheran or Anglican/Episcopal congregations, Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
As for reaffirming the baptismal covenant on December 31 or January 1, keep in mind that Baptism of the Lord (the following Sunday!) is a more typical time to do that. Some may appreciate the ability to do this twice in two weeks. Others may find it problematic. Work with you worship planning team to discern which approach is best for your congregation.
God has ordered our lives and our skills in many ways, all of them appropriate in their season and all of them intended as a source of joy.
Psalm 8 (UMH 743).
A psalm of wonder and joy, seeing the world with new eyes and awe.
New heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem, new world order -- all things new because of the renewal of all things in Jesus Christ.
Jesus establishes the priorities and practices of faithful discipleship in his "new world order," the reign of God -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, welcoming the stranger, refreshing the thirsty, and visiting the sick and imprisoned.
Also see Estudios Exegtico: Homilticos -- Spanish-language Revised Common Lectionary resources from Instituto Universitario ISEDET in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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What does your congregation or worshiping community need to do most with these texts for this service this year? Is it time to reaffirm and recommit to priorities for Christian disicipleship? If so, you may focus on the gospel lesson. Or is there a greater need to celebrate the goodness of the year past and begin to make a new start in the year now beginning?
If your focus is on reaffirming priorities, you may wish to deal primarily with the Old Testament and the Gospel.
Rather than letting the old year go, instead, with Ecclesiastes, plan singing, prayers, and images that help you remember all the good not only of the past year, but of all of life God has already built into the basic fabric of life on earth. Create a ritual of thanksgiving in prayer, song, and perhaps even simple dance all can join to celebrate these good gifts of the year that is past.
Continue the celebration with Matthew. Here, offer thanks particularly for the ways you have been like the "sheep" in this story in the year that is past as you encountered, blessed, and have been blessed by the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Take time as a response to this reading and acts of thanks to make pledges for how you will seek to encounter, bless and be blessed by these people -- and in them, Christ-- even more in the year to come as visible signs that you are "body of Christ, redeemed by his blood." Then celebrate around the Lord's Table!
If your focus is on brand new things or changed behavior, consider focusing on Revelation. Use this text to help you plan worship with "all times" in mind -- future, past, and present. Imagine what the "brand new things" will be like in the age to come, offer thanks for signs of them already present and in the past, and commit to being part of the emergence of these brand new things this day and in the days ahead.
Whichever focus you choose or commitments you invite people to make, be sure they are specific, concrete, and accountable. If you have people write these down, have them make two copies -- one they keep for themselves and another they place in an offering with contact information so you can follow up. Think through and give people some specific suggestions for how they can begin acting on these commitments in the week to come. Consider prompting those on Twitter or Facebook or email with a note each day from now through Baptism of the Lord about possible next steps they can be part of in your community.
The simple act of following up may be a first step toward living the covenant of baptism, or the Wesley Covenant you may also reaffirm this night. Do this simple act of "watching over one another in love." But then take the next step in Wesleyan discipleship. Start considering how you can create ongoing processes that support one another living out your covenantal vows with God and one another week after week.
The "Aaronic blessing" is more than kind words or wishes. It is a way of placing God's name upon God's people.
Psalm 8 (UMH 743).
Same psalm as for New Year/Watch Night, but with a different emphasis. Here, focus on the majesty of God's name.
A hymn that reminds the church at Philippi of its own history and mission and celebrates that Jesus is given the name above all names because he humbled himself.
The shepherds tell Mary and Joseph what the angels revealed to them. Mary ponders these things in her heart, and Jesus is circumcised and named on the eighth day.
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As with all "feast days" in the life of the church, the readings for this day are designed to coordinate with one another, and in this case around themes of God's name and our identity as people of this God. The blessing in Numbers is understood to be a means by which the priest places the name of YHWH upon the faithful, not unlike the Trinitarian benediction offered at the end of our ritual in the hymnal and the Book of Worship (see UMH 11).
These are more than nice words. They are words intended to convey the presence and power of God upon those who receive them.
Every time we offer such blessings, we embody our priesthood as the baptized for others.
How do people experience and express such placing of God's name upon others where you are?
How might they experience and express that more fully, and in more places, and for more people?
The hymn from Philippians blesses the name of Jesus in language that reflects the character of that community and the reality of how they had encountered Jesus Christ and the claims of God's kingdom in their midst. Paul here sings them their song, reminding them of who they are because they belong to Jesus Christ, whose holy name will be blessed forever because he humbled himself. What is your congregation's song?
What song best names who they are and blesses Jesus for how your congregation has encountered him and the claims of God's kingdom? Consider singing that song tonight as a response to this reading.
While Luke 2 may seem like a repeat of the Christmas Eve text (it is, mostly!), the point of this reading for this service is the last line, referring to Jesus' circumcision on the eighth day. Luke gives careful attention to the ways Jesus' family observed and fulfilled Jewish ritual life. Male babies were officially named at their circumcision on the eighth day after their birth. Celebrating the naming and circumcision of Jesus also celebrates how the community of the people called Israel, and by extension the people called church, are blessed by this name (Ye-shua, "The Lord Saves"), and how we continue this practice of naming others in Christ through baptism and through our ongoing support of one another as a living, active community in the risen Christ.
Together, these readings remind us of the power of naming and blessing as humble service.
The question this night, and for the years to come, is how we translate this reminder into real encounters with others, and especially others who need and long for such blessing in their lives.
A suggestion from a pastor friend of mine: Encourage folks to hang out in pairs where people may go late at night -- liquor stores, convenience stores, just outside bars -- and offer to pray with and bless anyone who desires it. Clear this with the store owner first, of course! The point of this is to offer presence in listening, the voice of prayer, and an act of blessing for people in places who may need one on a cold winter's night.
If several of your worship planning team try this out before they lead this service, perhaps they can offer brief testimonies about what happened when they extended the blessing of God to others in this way. Or you might show pictures or video of this happening (with the written permission of those photographed if they are at all recognizable!) as the reading from Numbers is read.
Isaiah prophesies to a people just returning from exile that the day would come when all nations would "stream to their light."
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (UMH 795).
In praise of the righteous king who would receive tribute from all nations --Sing, using Response 1.
Paul says that his imprisonments are enabling the Gentiles, including leaders of the Roman Empire, to learn the mystery that they, too, are invited to become fellow heirs with Christ Jesus.
Matthew tells of the visit of the Magi and their participation in God's subversion of Herod's plan.
Epiphany is a ancient Christian celebration that has become extended over two Sundays in The United Methodist Church and many other churches. What we know of early celebrations of this day is that it incorporated both the stories of the Magi and the baptism of the Lord, and it was a major day for baptizing in its own right. Over time in the West (but not in the Orthodox Church), the two emphases became separated into two separate days. In essence, they are still two sides of the same basic celebration of the public revealing of Jesus as the Son of God. As you plan for worship today, do so with next week's celebration of the baptism of Jesus in mind as well.
Communion. Here is another time to sing Christmas carols and Epiphany hymns during the giving of the bread and cup. Use the Great Thanksgiving on pages 58-59 of The United Methodist Book of Worship.
Calendar and Colors
The holiday hoopla is just about over. In the Northern hemisphere, the realities of workaday life, school, and winter may begin setting in in a day or two. In the Southern hemisphere, it's summer, and life goes on. In New Orleans and other places that share similar traditions, Mardi Gras season begins this coming Friday. For the rest of us, ordinary time and the color green picks up tomorrow. We'll have white and gold again next Sunday (Baptism of the Lord) and Transfiguration Sunday (February 19), but all the other days and weekdays are green.
During the coming "green Sundays," the Old Testament and Gospel are selected to coordinate with each other, but the epistle readings do not. Instead, the epistle readings begin a series in I Corinthians, starting in chapter 6, picking up on the theme of baptism from the previous Sunday.
Ash Wednesday (purple) comes at a more "normal" time this year -- February 22-- compared to last year's very long Season after the Epiphany.
Special offerings and events for January include Human Relations Day on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance on January 19, the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25), and Ecumenical Sunday (January 22).
All the texts for Epiphany are about the manifestation ("") of God's saving intervention in history. In Isaiah, we hear God's promise for the days following the end of the exile in Babylon. In both Ephesians and Matthew, we read of God's outrageous revelation of salvation to Gentiles who were formerly bitter enemies and oppressors. Paul writes Ephesians while imprisoned by Roman authorities, but boasts that this gives him the opportunity to witness to Gentiles in the highest places of the Roman Empire that God is out to save them through Jesus Christ as well. The Magi were descendents of the Babylonians, the very people who carried the people of Judah into exile. When word about God entering history gets out, by whatever means, no part of the world is unaffected, including enemies!
Isaiah offers a word from the Lord to exiles or new returnees to their homeland after at least a 39-year absence. They knew to expect ruins on their return, and that is what they had found. If thick darkness (verse 2) were anywhere in the world they knew, their ruined homeland and their destroyed capital, Jerusalem, would be where they would expect to find it.
Against this backdrop, the prophet declares the coming of the glory of the Lord, ready to shine on the land of Judah while the rest of the nations were covered in thick darkness (verses 1-2).
This prophecy was partly fulfilled in those times. Not long after issuing the decree to set the Judeans free to return to their homeland, the new Persian government also sent orders to have supplies and building materials sent to rebuild and furnish the city and its temple. Among those materials were gold and frankincense (Isaiah 60:6). Part of what Isaiah's word may have accomplished in its day, then, was to remind the returned exiles that if they were paying attention they would in fact see other nations bringing camels, gold, and frankincense into Jerusalem, as well as more and more of their relatives returning to the homeland (verses 4-6). This was nothing less than God's glory shining on them as they began to rebuild.
When you look around you, where you are, what do you see? Do you see ruins? Do you see "thick darkness"? Or do you also see signs that God's glory shines and offers all sorts of gifts for the rebuilding of Christian community where you are? What are those signs? Consider on your worship planning team how, in addition to the gold and frankincense mentioned here and in Matthew, you may incorporate these signs in worship today.
Part of the value of this prophecy has been its power to speak words of hope to the people of God in times when their world has fallen into chaos and disorder, when "thick darkness" has become reality where they are.
But to be sure, such "thick darkness" has also been known in other nations and among any peoples who have lived in poverty and under oppression of one sort of another for any length of time. In the early twentieth century, it became known globally during the Great Depression. Here in the early twenty-first century, it appears we are in the midst of another period of global instability, economic chaos, thick darkness.
And meanwhile the statistics about the decline not only of The United Methodist Church, but Christianity itself in the United States, cast yet another pall of "thick darkness" upon those of us in leadership.
This prophecy thus continues to speak to us -- as nations and as church-- in this very day. "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you."
It is not hubris, but an act of faith (if we will live in faith!) to say that God calls us through this prophecy to stir from our own depression as church, to live in the way of Jesus, and in so doing to find that he, and we through him, are exactly as he said: the light of the world. Our mutual care for one another and extended to all, our commitment and action that renounces the evil forces of this world and resists injustice and oppression, our praise of God in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, our witness through lives of holiness to the holiness of God -- all these are signs of God's glory shining on and through us, if we will let it shine.
So who and what around you is shining with the light of God's glory in the midst of the thick darkness surrounding us? If you don't already have some of these "shining ones" on your worship planning team, invite one or two in for your planning for this service. Let their light become contagious among you, and then spread abroad in your celebration this day.
In the reading from Ephesians, we see another angle on suffering and gospel, and in particular on suffering and the manifestation of God's glory through evangelism. It was typically evangelism that got Paul locked away. And being locked away, Paul never stopped evangelizing about God's kingdom and Jesus Christ to everyone he could, even to the point, as he writes in Philippians (1:12-14), of reaching the whole imperial guard in Rome, who in turn shared at least something of that message with the leadership of the empire. That is part of what Paul refers to here in Ephesians when he speaks of the mystery of the gospel now being made known to "rulers and authorities in heavenly places" (Ephesians 3:11).
The bottom line: Christ simply has been made manifest to all, and the good news about him will go out from all who are committed to him and to all the world, including the Gentiles.
To us, this may sound obvious. Most of the Christians in the world are, and for many centuries have been, Gentiles.
Hear the challenge in its own day, though. The whole letter to the Ephesians is a reflection of the remarkable capacity of that set of communities of Christians to live as Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. This was not happening everywhere in this early period. The notion that Gentiles were to be included and participate on an equal basis with Jewish people was still quite controversial at the time.
From a Jewish perspective (such as Paul's), there were really only two divisions in humankind -- Jewish and Gentile. Race as we construe it was not a factor. There were some ethnic differences among Jewish people and some prejudices, to be sure. But basically you were either Jewish or Gentile, period. In Ephesians, Paul boldly declares what was lived reality in that community: Christ had broken down the dividing wall in humanity between Jewish and Gentile. They were living witnesses that, in Christ, God was making one new humanity in place of the two (Ephesians 2:11-16).
But what about the Gentile perspective? In reality, the Gentile world was (and remains!) deeply divided on all kinds of lines of culture, ethnicity, race, social class, religious practices, and others. Among Gentiles, there were then and still are today many more dividing walls to be broken down.
The fracturing of Christian communities brought about since the time of the Protestant Reformation has often tended to reinforce rather than break down divisions. In our fractured state, we continue to think we are making progress if we are getting a few more "folks like us" -- or folks from other cultures we can convince and teach to become like us-- to join us in worship and other good deeds. Does either of these tactics -- gathering folks like us together or trying to make others be more like us -- represent the fullness of the mystery of God breaking down all dividing walls in Christ?
Are there experiences of imprisonment or other suffering where you are that have enabled the gospel of Jesus to be shared with persons whom you, in your usual "niched Protestant Gentileness," might not otherwise share it? How might some of those opportunities be lifted up in worship today?
Think about how you might include images of chains and shackles -- perhaps in artwork or perhaps as actual chains and shackles -- along with the reading of this text.
The usual pageantry for Matthew's gospel this Sunday includes the three kings, their gifts, and perhaps the use of incense. There is something comforting about repeating the usual elements, even when the materials we may use to do so are bathrobes and other commonplace items we may have available. That comfort and familiarity, even some of the domestication that comes with it, can be a blessing.
But perhaps this year you may be ready to do more as well. Perhaps in the midst of the economic freefall, the impending threats of global climate change, and the ongoing uncertainties about the price and availability of energy sources, your congregation may be in a position to hear and experience this story in ways that take seriously the notion of threat and subversion that were clearly part of its first tellings.
Iraqi or Iranian astrologers just didn't normally go waltzing into Jerusalem looking for a newborn child destined to become the new ruler of that nation. If they did, they would have known enough protocol from their own culture that they wouldn't normally start by asking common people and maybe a priest or two where this child might be. Matters of state like this would usually have been handled by an official delegation working through all the "right" channels. In short, what these men were doing in Jerusalem and how they did it was bound -- and maybe even intended-- to draw suspicion from the powers that be.
What are you doing as a congregation or as individuals, or what are others doing in your community, that draws suspicion by talking with "the wrong people?" Where are you taking action to find Jesus at work in ways that avoid the barriers that are in place to keep you from finding him?
What we know of Herod we know primarily from a historian (Josephus) who did not like him, as well as from this testimony in Matthew. Herod was, by their testimony, insecure, paranoid, easily threatened, and ready to act violently if he thought someone might be in his way.
But in Matthew's story, our Christian story, Herod is not just a maniacal historical figure. He is also stand-in for the powers of the world that keep others from access to truth they do not want to have accessed, and then try to control the outcome of any truth discovered. The Magi come as free agents. They are drawn into Herod's scheme as pawns. The angels in dreams send them home by another way and send the Holy Family into exile in Egypt, also as free agents. Herod lashes out with extreme violence, ordering the execution of every Jewish male under age two.
God's consistent activity in this story was a subversion of the powers that be and all they would attempt to stop God's reign from being made known through Jesus. In nature, God arranged the alignment of planets viewed by the astrologers. Through the astrologers going to Jerusalem, the wrong people are asked and Herod's suspicions are raised. Through Herod, the Magi discover where they need to go to find the king they seek. Through a series of dreams, God leads the astrologers and the Holy Family to safety in the face of what were very serious death threats from Herod. It is subversion after subversion, God never once using the "right channels" to spread the word of the newborn king and God's kingdom surely coming to all the world.
How do people in your congregation or community join God's subversion of the powers that be to bring about the revelation of God's reign to strangers and enemies? How does God continue to act subversively where you are to continue to secure a place for God's reign not only to survive but to thrive where you are?
Note that the Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer for today calls all Christians around the world to pray precisely for the region from which the Magi came. The area includes Iran and Iraq, among other Islamic nations, several of which are hostile to U.S. interests or have a history that is hostile to or limits open expressions of the Christian faith. How will you pray with and for these people in ways that embody the spirit of these texts today?
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The United Methodist Book of Worship offers several possible services and other resources you may use or adapt to your setting:
- "The Great Thanksgiving for Christmas Eve, Day or Season," 56-57 (First Sunday after Christmas, Holy Name)
- "The Great Thanksgiving for New Year, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord or Covenant Reaffirmation," 58-59 (New Year, Epiphany)
- Covenant Renewal Service, 288 (New Year's )
- UMBOW BOW 273 (Holy Name, New Year)
- Greeting: UMBOW, 296 (Epiphany)
- UMBOW 277, 278 (New Year, Holy Name) UMBOW 297 (New Year, Holy Name, Epiphany), or UMH 255 (Epiphany)
- Canticle/Act of Praise following the opening prayer: UMH 82, "Canticle of God's Glory" (Luke)
- Lighting the Christ Candle: If you have been lighting candles during Advent, consider lighting the Christ candle on this Sunday as we close the twelve days of Christmas. See "Lighting the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve or on Epiphany." The candle lighting could also take place just before or following the first reading.
Concerns and Prayers:
- UMBOW 279, UMBOW 495
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq.
- For other forms of Prayers of the People, see The Book of Common Prayer, pages 383-393
The Great Thanksgiving:
- "The Great Thanksgiving for Christmas Eve, Day or Season," UMBOW 56-57 (Holy Name)
- "The Great Thanksgiving for New Year, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord or Covenant Reaffirmation," UMBOW 58-59 (New Year, Epiphany)
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion: UMBOW 551 (New Year, Covenant, Holy Name, Epiphany)
Dismissal with Blessing: UMBOW 265 (A deacon or assisting minister/layperson could dismiss the people using the first section and the pastor speak the blessing beginning with, "And the blessing of God Almighty ...")
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