A reflection for our church’s brief, online Watchnight Service.
Imagine a gathering of enslaved women and men, collecting in secret on any given December 31st. New Year’s Day was often when enslavers settled their accounts; should they find themselves in debt, it was likely they would sell some of those they had bought and abused
What do the conversations of those gathered sound like? What do the songs feel like? What do the prayers look like?
Imagine now a similar gathering on New Year’s Eve, 1862. Three and a half months earlier President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and word had reached this community that the new law would go into effect at midnight
What do those conversations sound like? What do those songs feel like? What do those prayers look like?
A Watchnight service is a sacred occasion, though not because we find it in Scripture or practiced by the early church. No, this service is holy because those who first gathered to mark the passage of one year to the next – first under the most extreme duress and then in anticipation of liberation – they sanctified it with their worship, praise, and prayer; with their songs, tears, and shouts; with their theologizing, organizing, and self-emancipating; they made holy this service of watching and waiting, of remembering and anticipating, of praise and petition by their refusal to renounce Habakkuk’s promise: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (2:3)
Coming precisely one week after Christmas, on this night we turn our attention again to the Word made flesh. In him there is no separation of the spiritual from the physical, the spirit from the body, spiritual freedom from holistic liberation.
Many of the women, men, and children who gathered in hush harbors to speak and sing the truth away from the enslaver’s deception and violence, these saints held seamlessly together the God who saved soul and flesh, who restored sin-tattered spirits and bodies burdened by white supremacy, whose salvation could not be withheld by plunderers or exploiters.
2022 has been another long year. But let us not make the mistake of thinking ourselves unique in this regard. 1862 was a long year. Every year, as we await the revelation of our Savior, is a long year.
We come tonight with our burdens, laments, and petitions. They are each of them valid. Our Lord has heard and will hear our cries. He sees the desires of your heart, the ones you’re barely able to utter to yourself.
But tonight is a place for praise as well. You are still here. We are still here. There is breath in your lungs, blood pumping through your body, synapses firing with feeling and emotion. You have been kept this year. You have not spun apart. There has been manna enough to eat, water-turned-wine enough to drink. Your God has been a strong tower and a fortress surrounding your vulnerabilities.
So we gather tonight in a spirit of praise, alongside the saints who’ve gone before us. We gather in that most Christian of way: the night of sorrow has been transformed into the daybreak of redemption. What had been a practiced grief has become the site of good tidings of the greatest possible joy. Our mourning has been traded for a dance, our sackcloth for garments of joy.