What's Tony Thinking

The Church Year, Epiphany and the Crisis of the Church


We had the happy privilege of marking the Feast of Epiphany (January 6) by sharing dinner with dear friends, including their Lutheran pastor. One of our hosts said that she had only lately come to understand the liturgical calendar, which meant we were now marking the end of the twelve days of Christmas and the beginning of the new season of Epiphany.

She was not alone in a limited acquaintance with the church year. Years ago now I was in an “Intro to Worship” class at Union Seminary where Jim Forbes was our instructor. Early in the term Jim asked us to each write down a day or season of “the liturgical year” that was big for whatever church tradition in which we grew up. We were to leave our paper on his desk as we exited.

I sat there, puzzled, for a long while after most of the rest of the class had left. Why? Well, I was raised in the Congregational Church and like many in the Reformed tradition we had pretty much dispensed with the church year, our Congregational forebears considering it Catholic or “popish.”

Honestly, I wasn’t even quite sure what Jim meant by “the liturgical year.” Finally, however, I realized what our big day was . . . Thanksgiving, of course! Pilgrims, Puritans and all that. I scribbled my answer on a piece of paper and dropped it on Jim’s desk. In response he snorted, “Thanksgiving!” as if to say, “you gotta be kidding!” I said, “Hey, man, it’s my culture. How about a little cultural sensitivity?”

Subsequently, as a pastor, I loved and called upon the church year as a helpful tool for faith formation, one that among other things demarcated the church from the wider culture and provided a sacred context and rhythm for all of life.

This is way of introducing our upcoming webinar on the season of Epiphany, based on the new book by Fleming Rutledge. You will see information to the right and a link to register at the “Crackers and Grape Juice” site. Registration is free. I will join others on a panel in discussing Fleming’s little book beginning on January 15. Hope you’ll come too.

And what has all this to do with “the crisis of the church”? I’m sure most people think that crisis is “church decline.” It is not. “Church decline” is a phony crisis. The crisis is Christological. What does the church believe and proclaim about Jesus Christ? Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked the church in his time, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

In the introduction to her book Fleming notes that the church in both its liberal and conservative manifestations is floundering at just this point. Moreover, the reason for observance of the church year is to be led to its proclamation of Christ. Here’s Fleming on the feckless center-left and heretical far-right.

“But above all, the church year leads us to Jesus Christ. This will be the central focus of the pages that follow. The
progression of seasons, when all is said and done, is designed so that the members of Christ’s body may participate even now in his eternal life by rejoicing in his living presence, following him in our various vocations, en- acting his teachings in our ministries, knowing him as our Savior, and above all glorifying him as Lord.

“In our time, however, many of the very same mainline churches who show a new interest in the church seasons have grown weak in proclaiming Christ. It does not give me any pleasure to note this. Jesus of Nazareth is revered as a teacher and moral exemplar, not infrequently side by side with various other religious figures, but the apostolic message about the unique identity and destiny of the Messiah (Christos) has become attenuated.

“As for the so- called evangelical, conservative, or right-wing churches, they have often allowed Jesus to become a repository of various grievances, so that the invocation of his name at political rallies has become commonplace. When something or someone less than God in Jesus Christ is evoked in worship, the central focus of the apostolic message is obscured, if not negated outright.

“The good news that the Scriptures proclaim will not thrive in this theological crisis. Serious attention paid to the themes of the season following the Feast of the Epiphany, in particular, can be a strong antidote to a weak Christology.”

All this to say, that a study series on the season of Epiphany, or the church year, is not about seasonal arts and crafts or little activities with which to fill time and home. It is about the epiphany, meaning “manifestation,” of Jesus Christ among us and as Bonhoeffer asked, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

In Bonhoeffer’s time, the period of the Nazi’s, many in Germany had done what is being done today on the far-right in America. They proclaimed Hitler the new messiah who would save Germany, just as many today acclaim Trump the anointed one of God who will save America. I wonder how many in this camp are even aware of the history in Germany, an era which began just about 100 years ago now when a disgruntled Bavarian house-painter began ranting about “the Jews and homosexuals” with such catastrophic consequences for all humanity.

Categories: Uncategorized