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Epiphany traditions awaken sense of wonder across the PC(USA)

From computer-generated ‘Star Words’ in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve to traditional coloring sheets for all ages, Presbyterians delight in celebrating the ancient festival day in new ways and spaces

by Emily Enders Odom | Mission Communications

Art as Prayer can be an empowering practice during worship. (Photo courtesy of Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri).

LOUISVILLE — With crayons at the ready and voices lifted high, the PC(USA)’s chapel coordinating team called members of the national staff together for online worship Wednesday to celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord/Día de los Reyes (Day of the Three Kings), which is observed on Jan. 6.

Opening with the infectious hymn, “Los Magos” from El Himnario Presbiteriano [© 1993 The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, The New Century Hymnal], the intentionally bilingual service both reflected and invited contributions from the Hispanic/Latino-a community.

For centuries, Christians in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Spain and elsewhere have been observing the Day of the Three Kings, while the celebration of Epiphany itself can be traced to the earliest years of Christian practice.

“Mine is a personal reflection regarding this time of the year,” said Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, when invited to share a special memory or tradition around Epiphany. “I was born and raised in the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, where the tradition of the Epiphany, or Three Kings, is very strong.”

Cintrón-Olivieri, together with the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts, serves as regional liaison for the Caribbean in Presbyterian World Mission.

“If you ask any Puerto Rican living in the diaspora, any Puerto Rican living outside of the island, they will tell you that we have — somewhere, somehow — portraits or figurines of the Three Kings in our homes,” she continued. “So, I decided to do the Christmas card this year for our home depicting the Three Kings because, again, of the strong tradition and the reality of Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the world to everyone, and that’s the coloring page that you have.”

Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri was Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018).

As a gifted artist, Cintrón-Olivieri — who planned the chapel service with the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo and Flor Vélez-Díaz — often shares how “art as prayer” can be an empowering practice. Toward that end, she provided each worshiper in advance with a downloadable coloring sheet, her original design [available here], which participants were encouraged to print and color during the service.

While some worshipers showed their artwork on screen, others continued to voice their most memorable Epiphany traditions.

“In the church where I grew up in Louisiana, we had Epiphany stars with words for spiritual gifts written on each star, and those were handed out in the offering plates kind of like a reverse offering,” said Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship. “Everyone would take a star and pin it on their shirt, and that would be your gift for the year, something to ponder and focus on. I remember one year I got ‘Harmony,’ and I kept that in my guitar case for a long time.”

“StarWords” are also part of Rev. Sharon K. Core’s Epiphany story, a tradition she was eager to introduce to the Presbytery of Western Reserve, where she serves as general presbyter.

The Rev. Sharon K. Core

“Many years ago, the Rev. Beth Duttera Newman introduced StarWords to our clergy group [in the Presbytery of Western North Carolina],” recalled Core. “I then began the tradition while at Arlington (Virginia) Presbyterian Church to great success and excitement. Back in the day, I had actual pieces of paper with words inside stars. We’d pass them around during a part in the sermon, face down in offering plates. It was always such fun to watch people dig around as they picked their star even though they weren’t looking at the words. And then the looks on faces when they would turn them over — some were excited, others perplexed and still others horrified, especially if it was a really ‘hard’ word like ‘forgiveness’ or ‘acceptance’ or ‘justice!’”

When Core arrived at Western Reserve in 2017, she at first sought out churches that provided star words. Then, last year, she approached Josh Daum, the presbytery’s office administrator, with the thought that the presbytery could provide them.

Daum, who spends a lot of time thinking about technology — including teaching people how to navigate and use new tools and encouraging a sense of play and experimentation when it comes to incorporating technological elements into the life of the community — readily embraced the challenge.

“The Star Words project was a wonderful confluence of ideas: an opportunity to facilitate a meaningful tradition for people in our community — and beyond, as it turned out! — while also connecting them as a community,” said Daum. “The communal nature of sitting in rows with others and taking a paper star from a plate is truly wonderful, but there simply isn’t any ‘real’ place we all gather where we could do that. Unless, of course, you count the internet, which I do!”

Once Daum had devised a way to host the project on the presbytery’s website, Core provided the words as well as the text that appears on the StarWords page, which she now invites everyone to visit in order to reveal their own word.

“As the months of this New Year unfold,” Core writes, “try to be open to the manifestation of God in your own life; listen for how God is speaking to you.”

And even as technology is allowing for bold new traditions in virtual spaces, for Presbyterians seeking ways to enhance physical worship spaces and experiences, ideas abound.

The Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos

The Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Lake City, Colorado, shared just a few in his blog post of three years ago.

“While I don’t have the space to unpack the many ways we as a church can lead in Epiphany celebrations, here are three quick ideas to explore: 1.) leave up the Christmas decorations in your churches and homes until January 5th (after all, Epiphany Eve is the 12th day of Christmas), 2.) make a King Cake and include a traditional fève (a little porcelain baby Jesus), and 3.) read the story from the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2) or an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of the Magi. Even in these little ways, you join in the crowd of witnesses that acknowledge Christ Jesus as the King over all of Creation.”


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