Home Worship Planning Seasons & Holidays Watch Night Owlah Service

Watch Night Owlah Service

The concept and design of a Watch Night Owlah [o-law/burnt offering] liturgy was developed and celebrated in 1998 by an ecumenical faith team in Birchwood, Wisconsin. Leila M. Geist, a lay member of Birchwood United Methodist Church and a member of the Discipleship Ministries Vision 2000 Team, helped coordinate the planning and liturgy design.

The Owlah Service is designed to be held on New Year’s Eve, at 11:00 p.m., ending at or near midnight. The liturgy is a simple design, calling for music, quiet reflection, readings from various biblical translations or paraphrases of the Ten Laws, and other covenant passages appropriate to the occasion. The ‘Owlah liturgy requires 3’ x 5’ "confession" cards for each participant, a basket which is burned along with the confession cards at the conclusion of the liturgy, and a small outdoor fire pit for the sacrificial burning. The printed service should include psalm and song texts for the flow of the service accommodation of the service portion held out-of-doors. Advance notice should be given that a brief portion of the service will be held out-of-doors. Last, in light of the penitential and confessional nature of the liturgy, and given the fact that the original invitation to the service was open to any and all of the community, it is advisable to have several qualified persons available for prayer with individuals following the liturgy. The service could be preceded or followed by a fellowship meal or refreshments--a time of koinonia (holy sharing).

Owlah Service of Repentance & Forgiveness
For Watch Night, New Year’s Eve

Welcome and introductory remarks regarding aspects of the liturgy may be made using these or similar words:

On the last night of the year it was traditional, particularly during the eighteenth century, to have a vigil service [see UMBOW, pp. 288ff]. Christians kept a vigil together to prepare themselves spiritually for a new year by ridding themselves of bad habits and renouncing evil and injustice. They used this opportunity to renew their covenant relationship with God. We turn to this tradition in tonight’s liturgy of prayer, confession, reflection, singing, burnt offering, pardon, and thanksgiving.

As we cross the threshold of a new year, it is an opportune time to re-evaluate our lives in light of the future. How will we use the coming years? What are our priorities? Are the things we do and give our lives to of most importance in the light of eternity? How strong is our covenant relationship with God?


Following the music, a leader offers greeting in the name of Christ.


Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee 89

Psalm 139 p. 854


The Ten Commandments Exodus 20:1-17
The leader or Scripture reader reads the Scripture passage first in its entirety; then the Litany is shared by the leader and people responsively.

From Exodus 20:2-17

I am the Lord your God . . .
you shall have no other gods before me.

I would never worship another god—or would you call it worship if Sunday’s big game, or my spouse, or my job is the center of my attention?

You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .
you shall not bow down to them or worship them.

"Idol" is an old term. It means what holds first place in one’s life. Many people consider money an idol. Are all my time and thoughts and energy put into making money? Could that be my idol too?

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.

Surely all those little slips of the tongue don’t matter.....or do they? How does the constant misuse of God’s name sound to those who want to be faithful people of God? How do my words make others feel?

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.

But times have changed: stores are open on Sunday—I need to shop then. My job requires me to work on Sunday. Perhaps I could declare another day for Sabbath rest?

Honor your father and your mother.

I do, even though they try my patience. They are aging and seem less competent to me. Am I really listening to their needs and concerns?

You shall not murder.

I would never do that! But if I even think hateful of someone . . . is that bad also?

You shall not commit adultery.

Unfaithfulness takes many forms today all around us. That’s what we see on TV. But that doesn’t make it right, does it?

You shall not steal.

I don’t do that! Stealing is taking things which don’t belong to us. Lifting company pens and paper now and then, or not returning incorrect change or a lender’s book wouldn’t be stealing, would it?

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

I don’t tell lies. I tell "news" as I heard it. But is it the truth? Maybe I should check the facts first or say nothing.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house [or anything your neighbor owns].

My neighbor has it. The TV says I need it. I envy what my friend has. I really want it. You mean I should be content and thankful for what I have? Or even share what I have with others?

O God, we thank you for your patient and steadfast love.
Help us to be faithful to your covenant love.
Enable us to be the people you desire us to be.
And beginning this night, may we always strive to live according to the covenant standards you have given us. Amen.

Lord, I Want to Be a Christian 402


Obstacles to Grace/See service supplement A for an approach to the sermon.


Here vocal or instrumental music appropriate to the service may be used.


See service supplement B. A time for explanation of Owlah, followed by prayer(s) of confession and forgiveness.

A significant period of silence should be allowed for reflection and for writing the individual confession cards, concluding with the Wesleyan form of the Covenant Prayer.


I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

("Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition," UMH #607. Used by permission.)

Following the Covenant Prayer, individuals are invited to come to the table/altar and place their confession card in the Owlah basket, touch the basket, and pray for pardon and release from sins. Music is appropriate during this time of prayer and continuing as the liturgy, just prior to midnight, moves out-of-doors.

Music suggestions: UMH #606, #355, #349, #418, #393, #357 (stanzas 1, 3, 5, 6).

The Owlah basket is carried out of the church, led by an acolyte/crucifer, and the people follow.

The liturgy continues with the people gathering around a small fire pit.

In silence, the Owlah basket and cards are lit by a torch [or placed in the burning fire] and consumed by the flames.

The worship leader then offers a prayer of Pardon and Thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace.

Joy to the World 246


Church bell(s), town bell, handbells, etc.


The people exchange signs of Christian love and reconciliation. The service may continue with Holy Communion. See UMH, p. 15 and UMBOW #58.

Leaders may decide to announce that prayer counselors available for those who would like to pray.

The service may be followed by warm indoor refreshments or a fellowship meal.

OWLAH Service, Supplement A
Obstacles to Grace

Grace comes in relationship—a relationship with God. God’s grace is God’s unconditional acceptance of each person, a covenant relationship that gives life to the recipient in the presence of the almighty love and power of God. As Christians, we highly value God’s grace as the supreme expression of God’s love and as the foundation for spiritual gifts and fruit.

There are many obstacles set in our path, thereby sin occurs. We all experience sin in some fashion (e.g., mental or physical abuse, lying, cheating, overindulgence). Sin takes many forms:

Situations: We find ourselves in enticing situations and lure ourselves into sin.
Evasion: We intentionally evade doing what we know God wants us to do.
Laziness: We do not make the effort to serve others as God would have us do.
Factual: We say we didn’t know it was a sin; we plead ignorance.
Habits: We have developed years of bad habits by not accepting and nurturing the relationship God offers.
Attitudes: We want to "enjoy" life; but we are actually missing the real joy of living - a deep relationship with God
Time: "I don’t have time" to pray, read scripture, help others. In actuality all of life’s fullness can be ours in God’s time.
Evil: Daily we struggle with the internal and external forces of good and evil; we battle our human, at times evil, tendencies in the face of God’s call to holiness (1 Peter 5:6-9).

Combined, the first letter of each of these "obstacles" spells SELF-HATE. Put simply, we do not love and respect ourselves as consecrated children of God and we fail to live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). The Bible teaches us that sin can be overcome by:

  • Realizing that God loves us and wants to forgive us of our sin
  • Living a life of prayer, with God at the center
  • Striving and seeking to know and do God’s will for us

By placing our lives completely in God’s hands, it is possible to strive to live a sinless life, understanding that we do not do this alone. God is with us (Emmanuel) empowering us with the Holy Spirit. The church is with us as we share together in worship, prayer, and watching over each other in love.

OWLAH Service, Supplement B
OWLAH—Burnt Offering

In the Hebrew Bible, the burnt offering (Owlah/o-law) is an offering that "goes up" in smoke, totally burned and consumed, with nothing left over. For Christians this sacrifice is a representation of Christ, who offered himself once for all for sin (Hebrews 10:10). The sacrifice symbol was a substitute for the sinner, even as Christ is our substitute. The offerer laid his/her hand on the sacrifice symbol and thus became identified with the offering as an act of faith. In the New Testament, Christ stood in the sinner’s place and made atonement for them as representative (1 Peter 1:18-20). Christ was the sacrifice—the life given—for atonement and reconciliation. Tonight we will offer our sacrifice symbol to God—our individual confession cards inscribed with our personal admissions to God.

Owlah Sacrifice (Leviticus 3:1-17):

  1. Chose the sacrifice (and recognized the sin).
  2. Took the offering to the Tabernacle or Temple (made confession).
  3. Placed hands on the [sinless] offering (gave it up).
  4. Blood was shed (life was given; sin flowed away).
  5. The offering was totally consumed by fire (total surrender of the worshiper’s heart and life to God), nothing held back.
  6. The offering became a "pleasing aroma" to the Lord (Numbers 28:8).

Owlah Sacrifice tonight:

  1. Accept the chosen sacrifice (Jesus on the Cross, whose blood was shed for our sins).
  2. Recognize your sin(s).
  3. Write it/them down (confess it) on the confession card.
  4. Put the card in the basket, place your hand on the basket (repent, give it up).
  5. Let it be totally burned (total surrender of heart and life to God); anything held back remains sin.
  6. This Offering becomes a "pleasing aroma" to God.

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