Does the turning of a year invite some spiritual optimism and hope for what lies ahead? Joyful, festive celebrations express a spirituality of delight and feasting. But is there something that reminds us of the other dimensions of a spirituality of oneness, of unity and of justice for all? I believe there is.
For over three decades my own New Year’s Day practice has been to recite, sing or reflect on the words of the gospel song, This little light of mine. The song is a reminder of the spiritual light which flickers in each of us, going before us, illuminating the path and inextinguishable. This annual practice has always felt to me like a reminder of the light which precedes us in the world. A light which invites us to be radiant in what we try to do. This annual practice and tradition is a reminder of the ground beneath me and before me.
A practice much older than mine provides a reminder of a profound spiritual yearning for freedom, emancipation, justice and liberty. For surely these things are the expression of any spirituality of love and compassion? At the cusp of a new year the reminder of this yearning comes in the form of Watch Night.
Watch Night is a prayer service that takes place on New Year’s Eve in black churches across the United States. The practice began in 1862 when free African Americans, joined by abolitionists, gathered to pray that the Emancipation Proclamation would be signed by President Lincoln as he had promised to do on the next day, January 1, 1863.
In many black churches the Emancipation Proclamation is still read in its entirety, or in part, at every Watch Night service. In some churches the lights are dimmed for the service and then completely turned off for the five minutes before midnight as congregants kneel in prayer. As midnight strikes, the lights are turned on and people rise from their knees and a new year is celebrated!
This tradition may celebrate one particular emancipation epiphany. Its particularity invites reflection and participation in the universal hope it points to. It invites us to the window of what a spirituality of being beloved of the Holy means for the emancipation of all people. The Watch Night rhythm of prayers offered on bended knees, the movement from dimmed light to darkness which welcomes the blazing light of a New Year is a metaphor for the cycles of dimness, darkness and the many shades of light which lead into promises of hope, justice and emancipation for all.
The celebratory partying of New Year’s Eve need not stand alone as an expression of a spirituality of delight and joy. The Watch Night tradition is a reminder of the hopes for oneness and unity emerging from the shadows into the full disclosure of light. The two strands of celebration are not separate but spiritual cousins.
My own treasured tradition with, This little light of mine, at the turning of the year is not diminished by these other traditions. It is enriched and enhanced by them. I am reminded that we each play a role in making the promises of the year ahead happen.
Perhaps your own traditions at the turning of the year reveal spiritual insights for yourself and others?
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