We can think of a lot of New Year’s Eve traditions – few of them spiritual in nature. But if we had grown up as part of the African American church, or possibly Methodist, we would likely be familiar with the Watch Night Service.
Watch Night is a gathering of the faithful in church (that’s right, church) on New Year’s Eve, anywhere from 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. until midnight.
New Year’s is not an observance on the Christian liturgical calendar. Instead, Watch Night grew from the experience of African Americans who “crossed over” from slavery to freedom. Tradition says that on December 31, 1862 (also known as “Freedom’s Eve”), Americans of African descent came together in churches and other gathering places, waiting anxiously for the moment when the Emancipation Proclamation would usher in abolition of slavery as law. At the stroke of midnight, January 1, 1863, according to Lincoln’s promise, all slaves in the Confederate States were legally free. The great day was greeted with shouts, prayers and songs of joy.
Rooted in this memory, folks still gather to usher in the new year in this way, rejoicing in the freedom God gives, praying to the One who will cross over with them into the time to come.
We don’t have a Watch Night service planned for this New Year’s Eve at BPC. But wouldn’t it be a fine thing to do sometime?
Meanwhile, let our own experiences of this new year’s beginning hold something of the meaning of Watch Night – and of the powerful news that the Lord is with us now and through all time.