Looking ahead, looking back, looking inward

Churches welcome new year through Watch Night vigils

December 31, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

As 2006 draws to a close, revelers will gasp at the Inner Harbor fireworks, and partygoers will raise their glasses to toast the new year. But at churches around the city and across the country, many will mark the hour in a different way: by approaching the altar and dropping to their knees at Watch Night services.

"You start off with giving [God] the first part of the year," said Bishop Kevia F. Elliott, pastor of The Lord's Church in Pimlico, who expects more than 600 congregants and friends to gather for music, testimony and preaching past midnight.

Watch Night on New Year's Eve began with 18th-century European Protestants, though today it lives on mostly in predominantly African-American congregations.

Since the Emancipation Proclamation, these late-night gatherings hark back to the long wait for freedom, according to Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, professor of theology and women's studies at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Kirk-Duggan, a Christian Methodist Episcopal minister, wrote about the services in her book More African American Special Days: 15 Complete Worship Services.

At The Lord's Church, Elliott said, people will testify to their faith, the praise team will sing, and a dance ministry will perform. He will preach, and about midnight everyone will come to the altar to pray. "It's been a lifelong experience for me," said Elliott, 46.

Anthony B. Dixon, an elder and a praise team member, said that since joining the nondenominational congregation about a dozen years ago, he has regularly attended Watch Night instead of more raucous New Year's Eve celebrations.

"I would go out and party," the 51-year-old Gwynn Oak resident said. "I don't live that way anymore. I'd rather spend my New Year's Eve with Christ, who has brought me from that particular kind of lifestyle into a new life."

The church provides safety from the midnight gunfire and violence tied to alcohol use, Dixon said, but he believes that's not the main reason people attend. "It makes a public statement. It says, `This is my commitment. I understand who Christ is in my life,'" he said.

About 1730, members of the Moravian Church in Germany, inspired by the Roman Catholic tradition of candlelit vigil services, began Watch Night, said the Rev. Craig D. Atwood, a Moravian minister and historical theologian at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. The word vigil comes from the Latin for "watching" and "wakefulness."

Methodist leader John Wesley met the Moravians and might have brought the concept to Methodist miners, who observed Watch Nights in April 1742 in England. "They were trying to stay away from booze and trouble," Kirk-Duggan said.

The Watch Night tradition among African-American churches might go back to the work of Moravians in the Caribbean, where they were among the first Protestants to minister to enslaved Africans, Atwood said. The Moravian movement - and its Watch Night tradition - continues on many of the islands, and Atwood said he believes the New Year's Eve services came to the United States as slaves were brought here through the Caribbean.

Watch Night took on new meaning during the Civil War as Freedom's Eve. Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect Jan. 1, 1863, and many slaves gathered in churches and elsewhere across the Confederate States on New Year's Eve to await the next day.

"They were waiting for the time they would legally be free," Kirk-Duggan said.

Today, "when people think of Watch Night, they come together to celebrate life, to thank God for the blessings of the current year and to ask for guidance and strength for the year to come," she said.

During Watch Night, "there's no mourning, no lament," the theologian said. "It's all about thanksgiving, joy, anticipation."

Some congregations include a sermon or a candlelit procession through church. Others continue the vigil until the first light of dawn. Often the services are an opportunity for "covenant renewal," Kirk-Duggan said.

"Many people consider Watch Night a time of recommitment ... a time to look at what happened during 2006, offer testimony about what God has done in their lives. They talk about bad things but how they overcame them," she said. "It's always about the transformation."

The three Methodist branches that are predominantly black - African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal - observe Watch Night. It's also included in the United Methodist Book of Worship, Kirk-Duggan said. Some churches within the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church will hold Watch Night services, although the practice is not widespread.

Among the 60,000 Moravians within the United States, older congregations tend to continue the Watch Night observance, Atwood said. Some ministers read the "memorabilia" - the official record of the community's history for the year. Then, at midnight, while the minister is in the midst of preaching, musicians begin to play, interrupting the sermon.

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