Watchnight: New Year, Renewed Faith

November 1st, 2012

People the world over anticipate and celebrate the coming of a new year. In the United States, we have the ball drop in Times Square, the peach drop in downtown Atlanta, and champagne toasts in every town and village. In Spain they eat twelve grapes at midnight hoping for twelve good months ahead. The Dutch burn bonfires of Christmas trees; and in Greece the tradition is to eat St. Basil's cake, looking for the gold coin within.

As midnight approaches on December 31, many partygoers celebrate with noise and frivolity, pausing to sing “Auld Lang Syne” when the clock winds down. But the Christian church has its own rituals, feasts, and music. Watchnight services and the renewal of covenants afford a time to break from old habits and make promises for the year ahead.

Many African American congregations practice the watch-night tradition, claiming that these rituals have origins in the slave community. Some church historians believe that their popularity began in connection with Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But most maintain that New Year’s Eve watchnight services were begun by John Wesley back in the eighteenth century. These times of worship were often designated as covenant renewal services intended to encourage renewed commitment to personal and communal spirituality in the year to come. Worship included singing, prayers, readings, and the liturgy of the Wesley Covenant Prayer.

In modern versions of watchnight services, many of the same worship elements are used, while a sermon and celebration of Holy Communion may be added as well. After the conclusion of the service, worshipers often continue with quiet prayer in the sanctuary until dawn. Candlelight and somber music set the mood for sober reflection and spiritual renewal. Congregations who regularly practice a watchnight covenant service discover a tremendous spiritual renewal in being present in the sanctuary with the turn of a new year. “Covenant is meant to provoke us to commitment,” according to Ed Phillips, Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Phillips suggests that the convenience of the worshiper is not the issue, but rather that distinctive covenant renewal should be observed as an offering to God, to make ourselves vulnerable to God in preparation for another year of faithful discipleship.

Despite Phillips’s admonition, there are many church communities who find that New Year’s Eve is not the optimum day for holding covenant renewal services. They prefer to consider alternative days and times, avoiding the conflict with New Year’s Eve. For example, covenant renewal might be held when observing Epiphany Sunday or as a part of the service of baptism renewal on the first Sunday after Epiphany.

Watchnight services are not limited to the beginning of the calendar year. Based on the context, congregations might also want to mark the eve of any number of special occasions. For example, in a college or university setting, worshiping communities can hold a special watchnight service the evening before a new school year starts; elderly congregants might decide to have their watchnight as a “watch day” prayer vigil and service instead, avoiding the complications of driving after dark. Some congregations hold watchnight services as part of the Easter Vigil, and still others decide to have watchnight prayer vigils before Commitment or Consecration Sunday. Whatever the occasion, watchnight services are important opportunities to remember that worship is not just a program in the church, but the heart of our connectedness to God as a community of faith.

The United Methodist Book of Worship contains resources for planning the covenant renewal services (see pp. 288-97). Additional information is available in The New Handbook for the Christian Year, and the Covenant Prayer is found in The United Methodist Hymnal (see p. 607). If you are part of another denomination be sure to check your worship planning resources as well.

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