All across the world today (31 December) Christians in their millions will attend 'Watch Night' services to usher in the new year in a community of faith.
I have attended (and arranged) a dozen or so of these services in my life. It is a wonderful way to journey into the new year in faith and commitment, particularly if you worship within a community whose journey you have shared in during the year and they have shared in yours.
As I looked back on my own sermons and liturgies for Watch Night services, and the sermons liturgies of others, I noticed that the theme of many of these services is reflective - taking stock of the year that has passed. Others are anticipatory - looking ahead to the year to come and making some commitments.
It was Socrates who said 'The unexamined life is not worth living [ὁ ... ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ]' (apparently uttered at his before he was executed for corrupting the youth. It is recorded in Plato's 'Apology' (Ap. 35a5-6)). Indeed, it is important to take stock, to stop and reflect, to give thanks, to let go, and to find the courage and faith to move forward in hope.
If you are attending a Watch Night service today I do hope and pray that it is a meaningful and empowering service for your community and for you, and that it adds to making life worth living.
However, do you know what the history is of this particular service? I was reminded of it again today when I was reading my daily devotion Common prayer: A liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (which you can access online daily for free at http://www.commonprayer.net).
Watch Night: Established in African-American communities on December 31, 1862, Watch Night is a gathering to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation becoming law. When the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate States were proclaimed free. Since that date 146 years ago, African-Americans have celebrated the good news of freedom in local churches on New Year’s Eve. Like the slaves who first gathered while the Civil War raged on, we proclaim freedom for all captives in Jesus’ name, knowing that for millions, freedom is not a reality. Our celebration is a commitment to join modern-day slaves and undocumented workers in their struggle for justice.
Perhaps this Watch Night we might be encouraged to remember that we live for more than ourselves? Perhaps we can be reminded of the establishment of this tradition and it can spur is on to ask forgiveness for the ways in which we have participated in and perpetuated injustice in our own lives and choices (the work we do, how we spend our money, how infrequently we serve the least of society). Perhaps it can also spur us on to living for freedom, the kind of freedom that comes from truly living not only in Christ, but for Christ and all those people and things that he loves?
May the year ahead be filled with joy, blessing, peace and flourishing for you, your family, your community, and even those who are different and far off.