Tonight the church honors not a saint, but an event: Watch Night, remembering the Emancipation Proclaimation of 1863.
Traditions surrounding a “night of watching” on New Year’s Eve can be found in Moravian and Methodist American history through the 1800’s. The practice may have begun almost a century earlier in Bohemian regions of Europe, however, as families marked endings and beginnings.
In America these vigils were taken as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and make resolutions for the coming one. Often held in churches and surrounded by prayer and music, these gatherings usually started in the evening and lasted past midnight.
In 1863, however, the tradition took on new life and a new focus in America as slaves in formerly Confederate States gathered in churches, homes, and rooms in the waning hours of 1862 awaiting President Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclaimation to take effect.
Watch Night continues to be an annual gathering, especially in communities of color, as a way to both remember what has happened and gather strength for continuing to work for the freedoms still to come. 2020 and 2021 have been stark reminders that the Emancipation Proclaimation was not, and has never been, enough in the struggle for all in this country to live in peace and enjoy prosperity. Indeed, that first proclamation didn’t “free all slaves” in the United States…that would take acts of individual legislation in many border states and territories over time.
We need to remember that racism and prejudice still influence our civic and religious lives, Beloved.
Watch Night is an invitation for us all to reflect and resolve to partner together to do more.
Today the church remembers St. Stephen, Deacon and Proto-Martyr.
It may seem odd to place the feast day of a martyr so close to The Nativity, but the reality is that Jesus came into a world of violence, no matter how loudly you sing “Silent Night.”
The pairing of the birth of the Messiah with the first martyr was intentional: Christ’s arrival is meant to redeem and reform our violent ways…but we’re not there yet.
St. Stephen appears in the Acts of the Apostles as a follower of Jesus whose defining characteristic is love. Even as he was being stoned to death, he prayed for his persecutors. We don’t know anything else about this disciple who apparently led a short, but noteworthy, life.
St. Stephen is joined by two other feast days directly on the heels of The Nativity: the Holy Innocents and St. John. All three will form a few days of peaks and valleys as the 12 Days of Christmastide play out. St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents will remind the us of the tragic nature of our world. St. John, the only Apostle said to have died of natural causes, will remind us that not everything is bad. This back-and-forth swing of the feasts of the church provide a rhythm that calls us to both work for justice, as not everything is well, and thank God for life and creation, because not everything is bad.
By the way, you sing of St. Stephen every year in the Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas” who, if you recall, “looked out on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, clean and crisp and even…”
St. Stephen is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that love is powerful, and it’s what we cling to and are held by in this life.
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where There were no rootless Christmas trees Hung with candycanes and breakable stars
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where There were no gilded Christmas trees And no tinsel Christmas trees And no tinfoil Christmas trees And no pink plastic Christmas trees And no gold Christmas trees And no black Christmas trees And no powderblue Christmas trees Hung with electric candles And encircled by tin electric trains And clever cornball relatives
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where No intrepid Bible salesmen Covered the territory In two-toned Cadillacs And where no Sears Roebuck creches Complete with plastic babe in manger Arrived by parcel post The babe by special delivery And where no televisioned Wise Men Praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where No fat handshaking stranger In a red flannel suit And a fake white beard Went around passing himself off as some sort of North Pole saint crossing the desert to Bethlehem Pennsylvania In a Volkswagen sled Drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer With German names And bearing sacks of Humble Gifts From Saks Fifth Avenue For everybody’s imagined Christ child
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where No Bing Crosby carolers Groaned of a tight Christmas And where no Radio City angels Iceskated wingless Thru a winter wonderland Into a jinglebell heaven Daily at 8:30 With Midnight Mass matinees
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And softly stole away into Some anonymous soul He waits again An unimaginable And impossibly Immaculate Reconception The very craziest Of Second Comings
It’s as if we finally have figured out what our true heart’s desire is: to know the Divine better.
Like Aaron at the base of the mountain, when we aren’t attuned to the Divine in the world (and ourselves and others) we make golden calves like money, fame, vanity, and yes, sacred texts and religion.
Those last two are the sneakiest golden calves of all…
Today we plead that God be made known. We look to the skies to spy it in real time, all the while God arrives under the most normal, unassuming, ungodly way…which gives us insight into the Divine mind, if we pay attention.
“O Ruler!” are the words sung by the church today. “O Rex!”
In our most honest moments we admit that we both like leadership, and like to rebel against it…humans are fickle.
We’re all ruled by something. Even the most unique individual allows that uniqueness to guide them to a fault. The most “don’t tread on me” flag waving person has a hook in their nose and their ideology is steering the ship.
What rules in your life?
At its best this call is a plea that our basest desires will no longer rule us, and that something more holy will do it. Perhaps peace will rule. Or love. The best of the Divine attributes!
At its worst, well, we’ve turned Jesus into just another self-styled tyrant to whom we demand others give their allegiance…
“O Oriens!” the church cries on the morning of the Winter Solstice. “O Dawn!” is what it literally means, both a bit ironic and exasperated on this shortest day of the year.
You know, my son Finn was born with two “true knots” in his umbilical cord. In ancient days this sign would have probably been taken as an omen of either his greatness or his mischievousness (and it would have been right on both counts!).
But living in a scientific age we have no need for these signs, right?
Well, I’d suggest the opposite. In another year with so much death, and with depression so rampant, we need reminders of our greatness, Beloved.
It’s all a reminder that, with every dawn, with every dayspring, something amazing is possible.
The dawn, the bright and morning star, is an ever-rising sign that something amazing is possible.
So stick around, Beloved. In case you didn’t know it, it’s good you exist and, well, amazing things are always possible with every dawn…
“O Clavis David” or “O Key of David” is the chant the church cries today.
This is less of a plea and more of a reminder from us to God that a promise was made, long ago, that from the house of the shepherd-king David another shepherd would come and unlock the doors of God’s reality, bringing heaven to earth…or at least starting the process.
We search constantly for the keys to unlock the universe: the Secret, the right prayer, the magical path.
I wonder, though, if really the key we need isn’t one to unlock the heavens, to unlock the universe for our own gain, but rather the right key to unlock our own selfish hearts…
Today the church uses its parched tongue to cry out, “O Radix Jesse!” or “O Root of Jesse!”
The ask here is that the dead stump of a family line, scourged and ravaged by one conquering after another, eating away at the Family Tree, somehow live again.
This dead-end of a year feels very stump-ish to me.
It’s also just true that while we may have eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have not learned its wisdom. That ancient tree is dead in our hands as we call what is evil, good, and what is good, evil.
On December 18th in Advent the church raises its voice to cry out, “O Adonai!” or “O Lord!”
This is, perhaps, the most honest prayer there is, Beloved. In times of trial and joy, “Oh God” or “My Lord” slips from our lips.
In the ancient context of Advent, this cry is both an invocation and a statement of political priorities. The Empire of old (and now?) would have you believe that power is Lord, that grievance is Lord, that Caesar is Lord.
In fact, all the ancient steles and decrees said just that: Caesar is Lord.
But the church, at its best, says that the Divine is Lord.
It’s a political statement. We’ve forgotten that…but we can remember. There is time.
-art is by Michael Adonai, an Eritrean painter, entitled “Back to Homeland.” You can imagine crying out “O Lord” when longing to return to your mother…