Word of the Week – Watch Night

A tradition harking back to ancient times, the New Year’s resolution is upon us. What is the best and bravest approach to the future? Solidarity seems to be the theme. Women buy teeshirts proclaiming themselves to be nasty women who will vote. Friends on Facebook state their plan: if there’s to be a Muslim registry, they’ll register.

It’s a rhetorical tradition. One of John F. Kennedy’s most famous speeches was delivered at the Berlin Wall, declaring that a Russian attack on West Berlin (the city, divided at that time) would be viewed as an attack on the United States.

JFK didn’t speak German. The sentiment was a last minute, hand-written addendum to the professionally polished speech, so the statement “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was ridiculed. The President had stated that he was a jelly doughnut. (It seems he shouldn’t have used the article, ein.) But the world knew what he meant. He cast the spotlight on West Berlin as the outpost of freedom in Eastern Europe.

I’m headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands next week, and I’m thinking about two German missionaries who were “called” to minister to the African slaves in St. Thomas and St. Croix. They were members of the Moravian Church, which had, as a part of its mission, the education of slaves. The legend is that these two sold themselves to a slave owner and boarded a ship bound for the Caribbean.

Current accounts suggest that those facts have been greatly simplified. Although they tried, they were refused passage as slaves. It was actually by the intervention of the Danish queen that they eventually made their way to St. Thomas, founding a missionary educational establishment that continued on. Like JFK’s clumsy translation, the locals knew what these men intended. Educational institutions spread across the Caribbean and The Moravian Church in St. John still celebrates each Sunday.

The Moravians were also the ones who, back in the 1700’s, established the tradition of Watch Night, a church service so associated in the U.S. with Black church traditions that people believe it originated here. It’s a service that begins in the evening of New Year’s Eve and ends at midnight. Generally, Watch Night is intended as a time to reflect on the prior year, give thanks, and pray for the future. It’s also a time to meditate on one’s own state of grace, “Watch ye, therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh.”

The association with Black churches took on special significance in 1862 while the congregation waited for January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. Thus, commemorating that moment of liberation has become a part of the celebration.

2017: A new beginning, a moment to consider the price of freedom, to think about what one ought to do and “watch ye, therefore…”  It’s time for some serious reflection.