Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, "When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?"
The King will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me." .......Matthew 25

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Watch Night that isn't....

So we have survived the Christmas cheer, and now find ourselves on the threshold of yet another new year.....another anachronistic milestone. :) Seems strange since our lives have long since ceased to be organized around the idea of January 1st being the start of a new year. Neither our working nor personal life is truly organized around the Gregorian calendar, and practically, our calendar year neither begins on 1st January nor ends on 31st December. The only cycle of activity that seems still to operate according to the conventional January 1st - December 31st cycle would probably be the school system.

Many churches organize a watch night service, which is kind of a misnomer as it is merely an evening service on New Year's eve and not a true watching-of-the-night service.

If you google 'watch night service', you'll get a variety of resources that will point the origins of the watch night service to John Wesley's covenant service 0f 1755. Somehow, I am not so convinced, since the original Wesley Covenant Service was not held on New Year's eve but on 11th August. Neither was it a watching-of-the-night vigil service. A commentary by Rev. Diedra Kriewald ties it to a later event 33 years later involving converted British miners:

"Watch-night prayers became a regular service in the Methodist centers of Bristol, London and Newcastle. They were generally held between 8:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. on the Friday nearest the full moon "so that participants walked safely home through moonlit streets," as stated in Wesley's journal, Dec. 31, 1777. Wesley linked the watch-night vigil liturgically with a covenant of grace (an invitation to accept renewed obedience to Christ) in a service on Aug. 11, 1775 -- 33 years after the first watch night."

By the 19th century, this had somehow morphed into a New Year's eve service. And for pragmatic reasons, many 'watch night' services have since ceased to be vigil services, but merely evening services held to remember God's Grace and blessings over the past year.

It seems to me that the meaning of the event has been somewhat lost. We still unthinkingly refer to it as a 'watch night service' when it is clearly not a watching-the-night vigil service. The original covenantal spirit as envisioned by Wesley has also been somewhat lost over the years. And as a remembrance of God's Grace, which should be celebratory, my impressions of past watch-night services has been that they have tended to be overly introspective, sombre and morose. Where is the joy and celebration in recognizing God's Grace and blessings in our lives?

Perhaps we should return to fundamentals and revisit the idea of a covenant renewal service on the first day of the new year, or a truly celebratory service on the last day of the old year, and drop this anachronistic idea of a watch night service.

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