Epiphany Preaching: Star Words

Magi figurine holding a star
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

Growing up, I always looked forward to setting up the nativity scene each year as we decorated for Christmas. First, we’d set out the barn, and then carefully unwrap figure after figure—Mary, Joseph, the angel, a sheep, a shepherd, a donkey, a camel, the magi, and of course, baby Jesus. All of these figures told the Christmas story as I knew it.

Letting worship teach

I was an adult before I fully grasped that there were two birth stories for Jesus and that not all those nativity figures we unwrapped were in both stories. So, as a preacher, I’ve created worship opportunities to be clear that two versions of the story exist. One way I’ve done this is to really celebrate Epiphany since this event marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas and is always on January 6th.  In our worship display, we keep the camels and magi of the nativity set off to the side all through Advent, including Christmas Eve, and they don’t make their way on the scene until we celebrate Epiphany in worship. (Since January 6 may not fall on a traditional day to gather for many churches, we observe the Sunday before or after.) 

Star words

During Epiphany worship, we celebrate, as the story goes, that these magi or wise ones followed a star. Because the image of the star is so significant to their journey, somewhere along the way, I learned about this idea of offering a Star Word. Just as the magi followed a star long ago, we too can be guided by our star word for the coming year. 

How we do this may vary from year to year, but the basics remain the same. At some point in the worship service, people are invited to randomly choose a star without knowing the word printed on the reverse side. While I do know of some churches where people get to choose a word that speaks to them, I think of the star word selection as a metaphor to the Magi’s journey of discovery. Unsure of exactly what they would find, the Magi let the spirit guide them. Similarly, in our church we let the Spirit nudge people towards a word, allowing a star word to choose them! In this way, I am inviting folks to receive God’s gift in the form of this word that can guide them/inspire them/challenge them in the coming year. 

A practice beyond Epiphany

Once everyone has a star, I invite folks to keep the star someplace special, somewhere they will see it throughout the coming year. Perhaps on the refrigerator, on the bathroom mirror, taped to the dashboard of the car, at work cubicle, or in the wallet peeking out … someplace seen regularly so it can serve as a guide. 

For some, the word’s meaning pops up right away. For others, the meaning may evolve throughout the year. For still others, there may be no immediate significance, but over the months meaning emerges.

Preaching the star

While Epiphany is only one day of the year, the star can guide all year long. Twice I’ve had the word “zeal” and really wrestled with what that word meant for me personally and for me in my preaching! The good news is that I embraced the word with … well … zeal, and it brought spiritual energy to my ministry. 

But one of the most fun ways that the star words shine in the preaching moment is less through preaching and more about witness. Throughout the year, people will mention their word and how it is working in their lives. And some years, I invite these folks to offer a witness on the next Epiphany Sunday. These persons take a few moments in worship to share how their word was lived out through the year. They tell how the word challenged them to grow in meaningful ways, how the word brought surprising comfort in a time they didn’t know they needed it, and more. A lay witness can bring the good news to the people in a way that the congregation can hear in powerful ways, thereby inviting others to live into following their star as well!

Looking toward next year

The tradition of following the star has become so meaningful for those in my congregation that during the pandemic we mailed stars to each person. Other years, folks who are not able to be in worship for Epiphany Sunday email and ask me to send them a star. It is clear that this tradition has meaning. It rounds out our Advent and Christmas season and gives us something to guide our spiritual lives for the coming year. So try it. Be creative with the offering of Star Words and your Epiphany celebration and help all in our congregations know the story that is found only in the Gospel of Matthew!