It was not too long ago in the Presbyterian Church that the celebration of New Year’s was a bigger deal than Christmas. It’s true!
The liturgical traditions of Advent and Christmas were more popular in Roman Catholic and Lutheran congregations. Presbyterians were not so bound to a liturgical calendar as we are today, and instead we found ways, particularly in America, to frame secular holidays with sacred meaning. While others celebrated New Year’s with extravagant parties, many of us Christians were choosing to usher in the New Year by going to church, and gathering around the Lord’s Table to celebrate communion. They were known as Watch Night Services, and were particularly popular in our African-American congregations.
Watch Nights have a strong theological vision, and I wish we celebrated it more robustly in our churches these days. These services give us a foundation in time that stresses the sovereignty of God – starting all new things with God at the heart of our time. Beyond that, it is a chance to turn the page, put the past behind us, confess, re-form. How Presbyterian!
It was 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, that really helped us blaze a tradition of Watch Night services. The tradition goes back quite a ways further, 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.
Often on New Year Day one of the readings ties us to the 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. 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.
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’s YES is stronger than any NO we muster. 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. So take a moment to pause and look back to our roots in Abraham and Sarah, but also 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.
Thank you Pastor Matt!! This post is educational and inspirational!!
Thank you Matt, and Blessings!
Thanks!! Good to hear from you!
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I never knew that about the New Year’s Eve prayer/communion. I remember my church growing up would do the same although we didn’t do communion; we did pray into the new year.