I learned recently about a tradition in the Black American Church, the Watch Night Service. The tradition draws back to the Emancipation Proclamation, which although it was signed on September 22nd, 1862, did not go into full effect until January 1, 1863.
When December 31st, 1862 arrived, enslaved black people across the Confederacy gathered in their churches, “Watching” for midnight and emancipation. Frederick Douglass himself wrote of that day:
We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four million of slaves; we were watching, as it were, by the dim light of the stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries. Remembering those in bonds as bound with them, we wanted to join in the shout for freedom, and in the anthem of the redeemed.
Since that time, many churches have held Watch Night services, commemorating their ancestors’ communal anticipation of liberation. Often times a Watchman is appointed to keep the time and alert the pastor when midnight is approaching so the congregation may kneel in prayer as they welcome the new year.
As we move into 2020, as we ponder in this Christmas Season of short days and dark nights what it means — now— that Christ came to be one of us, John’s words rush into our ears.
In the Beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God,
and the Word WAS God.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Like the book of Genesis, John’s Gospel starts with God’s manifestation in creation, bringing illumination to the unlit cosmos. John’s prologue offers a rich and complex vision of Jesus Christ, outlining a reality of Jesus that does not start with Mary and Joseph in the manger, but rather culminates in the human birth of God in that particular time and place.
God’s WORD, Christ, has always been, and then in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s love, God’s WORD, is made human.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
William Stringfellow — Episcopal writer of the 1960s wrote,
“A Christian is not distinguished by his (or her) political views, or moral decisions, or habitual conduct, or personal piety, or least of all by his churchly activities. A Christian is distinguished by his radical esteem for the Incarnation.”
A Christian is distinguished by her radical esteem for the Incarnation.
This is the kind of love that God has for us:
No matter what we do— turn away or push back, or hurt one another, or ourselves, or God— nothing we can do will stop God’s love for us. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
Indeed, God only loves us more deeply. Holds us. Draws us closer. Refuses to let us go. Chooses us yet again. The Incarnation is above all God’s expression of love for God’s people. After we kept missing the point, when nothing else had kept our hearts, God came and dwelt among us. Drew so close we could hold him in OUR arms.
May we follow the example of our brothers and sisters in Christ who gather for Watch Services, recalling both what God has accomplished in our world, where liberty has broken in AND reckoning with all the ways God’s Kingdom has not yet arrived, recalling what our baptismal lives call us to be and recommitting our selves to the vocation of being Jesus people.