One of the things I love about my job is the opportunity to try out new ideas in some of my church services. Every month we have a Breakfast Club on a Sunday morning in place of our regular worship, which starts with food, then some songs, readings, and a short talk, then we do some crafts, and close with saying a prayer together. This service gives a big opportunity to be creative, but still tends to follow that prescribed format. Last week though I was given the vague service name ‘Epiphany Celebration’ to work with, knowing that it was a low Sunday where not many would come, and those who did would be expecting all age worship.
So I decided to draw on some Epiphany traditions from around the world and make it interactive rather than aimed specifically at children. It was just as well I did as there were significantly more adults than children. This was in the church that has a sound system and screen installed so I can put the whole lot, prayers, hymns and everything, onto PowerPoint and go through the service from my laptop. We used the screen at Midnight Mass this year as well and people were slightly confused about not being given anything to hold. It does make it a lot more straightforward though, if you’re organised enough to get it set up beforehand.
We started the service having already lit the advent wreath, making the most of not having tidied it away yet and giving us another opportunity to light the Christ candle. I wanted to use it for the prayers but didn’t want to draw too much attention to lighting it. We opened the service singing Angels from the Realms of Glory, introducing Epiphany by talking about Christmas cards with the Magi on, and an opening prayer focusing on gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then we completed our nativity set by moving the kings from the window ledge to the stable under the altar. We have a teddy bear nativity set in this church as the main times we use it are with the school children. It’s been in the church for years and many of them look forward to it being brought back out.
When the children had put the bears in the crib we said a prayer of confession together, which can be found at roots on the web, before moving to our readings. We had the New Testament reading as normal, from Ephesians 9:1-12. The gospel reading was from Matthew 2, about the Magi from the East, which we watched as a cartoon from YouTube to keep the children’s attention for a bit longer.
During the talk, I started off explaining why Epiphany is important- that in following the Magi who anticipated, recognised and welcomed the baby Jesus, churches and families can go through the same steps of welcoming Gods chosen one. I then talked about why each of the gifts was given: gold because it shows that Jesus is important like royalty, but even more so being God’s son; frankincense as a symbol of holiness; and myrrh as a symbol of pain and suffering that Jesus would go through at his death.
But then I moved on to talking about traditions around the world that help people celebrate Epiphany and the journey of the kings. The first we looked at was the Kings cake, or Rosca de Reyes, or Galette des Rois. They’re baked in different ways in different places, but in all of them a figure of baby Jesus or a bean to represent him is baked into the cake for the people who eat it to find. Traditionally the person who found it would be the Mardi Gras king or queen. In later years they were crowned king for the day and would be the one who hosted Epiphany the following year. The idea behind it is that, like the kings, we should also actively search for Jesus. The version I made was a French one (I didn’t have time for a Spanish version which is a braided dough decorated with gold, purple and green icing). The French version is 2 rounds of puff pastry with a layer of almond paste made from butter, ground almonds and sugar, in the middle. Very straightforward, as long as you don’t try making your own puff pastry!
The next tradition we explored was the Magi Blessing, or Chalking the Door. The date and the letters C B M, and cross symbols are chalked above the doorway of a house to pray that during the year it will be a place of peace and hospitality. The letters have two meanings, either the traditional names for the wise men- Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior; or a prayer in Latin, Christus mansionem benedicat, which means ‘Christ bless this house’. The prayers we used come later, but it caused a bit of confusion the following week to the people who hadn’t been there, and thought there was some strange graffiti going on!
The final tradition we looked at was the use of candles, by using them in our prayers. Candles are used a lot in church anyway, and particularly around Christmas, to remind us that Christ is the light who comes into the world to banish the darkness, and around Epiphany to signify the light that the Magi followed to find Jesus.
In our prayers we had 9 candles on the table and lit them one by one, remembering different groups of Christians as we did so. Another reason behind this was that the Magi were the first Gentiles to know about the importance of Jesus, so we need to remember to pray for Christians all over the world. We lit the first candle from the Advent wreath and used it to light all the other candles, which reminded us that Jesus came to serve. With the second candle we remembered Christians in Israel, and Simeon telling Mary and Joseph that Jesus would be a light to the Gentiles. With the third we prayed for Christians in India, remembering that the Magi came from the East. With the fourth we prayed for Christians in Europe, remembering that Paul took the gospel to Rome and parts of Greece. The fifth candle was for Christians in Africa and Phillip meeting the man from Ethiopia on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The sixth was for Christians in North and South America, and the missionaries who took the gospel there many centuries after Jesus. The seventh was for Australia and New Zealand where the Christian church has sent many people to spread the good news around the world. The eighth was for Christians in the Arctic and countries where the bible has to be vastly reinterpreted to make the message understandable. For example, the Inuit people don’t have sheep, so for them it makes sense to think if Jesus as the baby seal of God. Finally the ninth candle was for people on the seas, the Mission to Seamen and all who offer Christian hospitality to those a long way from home.
After the prayers we sang We Three Kings, and then went outside to chalk the door, using the following liturgy from Common Worship All Age Lectionary Resources.
“Peace be with this house and all who dwell in it, and peace to all who enter here. In keeping with the feast of Epiphany, we celebrate the Magi’s search for the infant king, the Christ child’s appearing to the world, and the peace and hospitality shared between the Magi and the Holy Family. May this church in the coming year be a place where Christ is pleased to dwell. May all our homes share the peace and hospitality of Christ which is revealed in the fragile flesh of an infant. Amen.”
We then moved back inside to the warmth and prayed for the life of our church. Giving thanks for the good times, thanking God that he was with us for the bad times, and thanking him for the times we felt particularly close to him. We finished the service remembering that Jesus is good news for the world, but that he is not limited to the world as he is the Lord of all creation. We sang Like a Candle Flame (Graham Kendrick) to close, which I had to teach them first, but which they enjoyed, and then finished with the blessing:
May we feel the love of God when we look up at the stars; the peace of God when we feel lost; and may God bless our dreams and keep us safe.
Some of the adults would not normally come to church if they knew that it was a family service, but did come that time and all said they really enjoyed it. It was a lot of work to put together but was definitely worth it to hear that it had helped people to connect with God in a way they weren’t expecting. Hopefully in the future they will be more likely to come to other forms of worship that they may have initially written off as having nothing to offer them. It also reinforces to me the need to make sure that all age worship has equally as much to offer the adults as the children, and that they can also learn, not just be there to keep the children in check.
All in all, it was a very positive and enjoyable experience and definitely made Epiphany more memorable and meaningful than in previous years. It was interesting for me to research the traditions other countries have, which show how important a festival it is, and to pass that on to my congregation. I hope you enjoyed reading this, please let me know if you found it helpful.