Did you know there was a time in the Presbyterian Church when New Year’s was a bigger celebration than Christmas? Turning the page…putting the past behind us…confession…re-forming. Starting to sound familiar? Actually it took the form of New Year Watch Night Services.
Christmas, and the liturgical cycle as a whole, was seen as a “Roman Catholic thing” and Presbyterians, particularly our African-American congregations, who couldn’t imagine celebrating New Year’s Eve without their church family, and who brought a history of plenty of uplifting joyful music and long prayers, helped us blaze a tradition of Watch Night services.
The tradition goes back quite a ways, but the fuel for Presbyterian congregations in America probably got its start all the way back on December 31, 1862, when blacks were holding vigil for the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect on Jan 1, 1863. It was “Freedom’s Eve”.
As the tradition developed there were often candlelight Watch services, with candelabras with 12 candles, one for each month of the year, and Presbyterians would recount the major events in the life of the congregation for that month. Baptisms, marriages, deaths, mission trips, confirmations – these were all fair game.
As the New Year came, with the bells tolling at midnight, the congregation would be gathered around the Lord’s Table, celebrating freedom and new life. It was a time to renew their covenant with God.
Not surprisingly, our New Year readings also tie into covenant and the beginning of Hebraic identity. Abram is given the instructions, details, and signs of the covenant: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
I am struck by the PROMISE we see in scripture today. Into our world full of broken promises, God speaks words that never erode.
Today promises are thrown around as more of a convenience to the one making them. “This person will leave me alone if I just promise to do….” Politicians come to mind.
God does not run away from the promises he has made. No matter what we do, nothing can undo what was done at the cross on our behalf.
What I love about baptism is that you can’t undo it. God has claimed us as his own, and that is final. We live with a promise that will never be ripped away from us.
What a way to start the year off! We not only look back to our roots in Abraham and Sarah, but to our roots in baptism, and to the beginning of God’s love affair with us, a love that will never die.
May your New Year be bright! And may the Light of Christmas continue to surround and fill you.