Where to Begin?
There are many possibilities for celebrating December 31 and January 1 in the Christian calendar.
December 31 in Methodist heritage has been a Watch Night, sometimes involving a rigorous service of covenant renewal and/or baptismal reaffirmation. For African heritage Methodists, Watch Night has also been known as an Owlah Service. For Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and some others in the broader Western tradition, January 1 is The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, commemorating his naming on the day of his circumcision (the eighth day).
Given all these choices, what should you plan to do?
Dan Benedict’s article on Watch Night and Covenant Services provides helpful guidance. As Dan notes, unless you have in place a process for following up on covenant pledges (like a strong set of Covenant Discipleship groups), the Covenant Service may become more of an exercise in “heritage worship” than actually accomplishing what it is designed to do. If you do have such systems in place, by all means, go for it!
This means that if your congregation is like most United Methodist congregations, you may wish to think about December 31 as a prayer vigil/watch night related either to New Year’s Day or, if you have the opportunity to celebrate with local Lutheran or Anglican/Episcopal congregations, Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
As for reaffirming the baptismal covenant on December 31 or January 1, keep in mind that Baptism of the Lord (January 10, 2016) is a more typical time to do that. Some may appreciate the ability to do this twice within two weeks. Others may find it problematic. Work with your worship planning team to discern which approach is best for your congregation.
Revised Common Lectionary Readings
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário em português Lecionário comum revisado
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 A time for every thing, a thing for every season.
Psalm 8 (UMH 743) Who are we that God is mindful of us?
Revelation 21:1-6a New heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem, new world order, all things new because of the renewal of all things in Jesus Christ.
Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus establishes the priorities and practices of faithful discipleship in his “new world order,” the reign of God— feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, welcoming the stranger, refreshing the thirsty and visiting the sick and imprisoned.
December 31, 2015 (after sundown) or January 1, 2016 — Readings for Holy Name of Jesus
Numbers 6:22-27 “The Aaronic Blessing”— How God chose to place God’s Name upon God’s people.
Psalm 8 (UMH 743) How majestic is God’s name!
Philippians 2:5-13 Jesus is given the name above all names.
Luke 2:15-21 The shepherds tell Mary and Joseph what the angels revealed to them. Mary ponders these things in her heart. Jesus is circumcised and named on the eighth day.
Atmospherics: Watch Night/New Year
Threads and Pearls
This service should continue the series begun with Christmas Eve. How will you weave the common threads (mystery, martyrs, magnificat) and identify the single pearl for this gathering so what you do here is continuous with and contributes to the progress of the whole series for this season?
Mystery and Magnificat: Psalm 8, Revelation (also martyrs, to a degree)
Martyrs: Matthew (the “sheep”)
1) Affirming the Past, Prioritizing the Future: Ecclesiastes and Matthew
Ecclesiastes provides the opportunity to plan singing, prayers, and images to help you remember the good of the past year and all that is built into the basic fabric of life on earth. Create a ritual of thanksgiving in prayer, song, and perhaps even simple dance all can join to celebrate these good gifts of the year that is past.
Continue the celebration with Matthew. Remember and give thanks for ways you have encountered, blessed and been blessed by people who are poor, or hungry, or lacking clothing, or sick, or in prison.
As I write this, ISIL has apparently downed a Russian passenger jet, killed 43 people in Beirut and 132 in Paris, and is threatening to attack the US, probably Washington, D.C. In response, governors of 26 states have said they will refuse to resettle Syrian refugees within their borders for fear that one of them may be an ISIL terrorist. Never mind that this is against U.S. law (the Supreme Court in Hines v. Davidowitz has established that all matters of immigration are properly in the hands of the federal government, and states have no say in this matter). It is more importantly, for us, an affront to the teaching of Jesus we read this night.
Thus, we start the new year remembering that while there is a time for everything, it is always time for hospitality. And we start the new year called to a vision of hospitality that does more than merely put up with the inconvenience of people not like us, but that actively welcomes them, feeds them, clothes them, and proactively goes to visit people who are sick, or friendless, or needy, or in prison.
Take time as a response to this reading to make pledges for how you will seek to encounter, bless and be blessed by these people—and in them Christ-- even more in the year to come as visible signs that you are “body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” Then celebrate around the Lord’s Table!
2) All Things New: Revelation
Imagine what the “brand new things” will be like in the age to come, offer thanks for signs of them already present and in the past, and commit to being part of the emergence of these brand new things this day and in the days ahead.
If you invite people to make commitments as part of this service, be sure they are specific, concrete, and accountable. Invite people to write these down in two copies—one they keep for themselves and another they place in an offering or give to one other person present with contact information so someone can follow up. Think through and give people some specific suggestions for how they can begin acting on these commitments in the week to come, starting no later than Monday, if not Saturday morning. Consider prompting those on Twitter or Facebook or email with a note each day from now through Baptism of the Lord about possible next steps they can take in your community.
The simple act of following up may be a first step toward living the covenant of baptism or the Wesleyan Covenant you may reaffirm this night. Do this simple act of “watching over one another in love.” But then take the next step in Wesleyan discipleship. Start considering how you can create ongoing processes that support one another living out your covenantal vows with God and one another week after week.
Atmospherics: Holy Name of Jesus
As with all “feast days” in the life of the church, the readings for this day are designed to coordinate with each other. On this feast day, the readings coordinate around themes of God’s name and our identity as God’s people.
Once again, think threads and pearls.
Mystery: all four readings
Martyrs: Philippians (every knee shall bow and tongue confess), Luke (shepherds)
Magnificat: Psalm 8, Philippians
1) Blessed to Bless Jesus and Others: Numbers and Philippians
The blessing in Numbers is understood to be a means by which the priest places the name of YHWH upon the faithful, not unlike the Trinitarian benediction offered at the end of our ritual in the hymnal and the Book of Worship (see UMH 11).
These are more than nice words. They are words intended to convey the presence and power of God upon those who receive them.
Every time we offer such blessings, we embody our priesthood as the baptized for others.
The hymn from Philippians blesses the name of Jesus in language that reflects the story of that community and how they specifically had encountered Jesus Christ and the claims of God’s kingdom in their midst. Paul sings them their song, reminding them of who they are because they belong to Jesus Christ. His holy name will be blessed forever because instead of “taking advantage” of his Deity, he humbled himself in his humanity.
2) Blessed Be the Name of Jesus: Luke and Philippians
While Luke 2 may seem like a repeat of the Christmas Eve text (it is, mostly!) the point of this reading for this service is the last verse, referring to the circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day. Luke gives careful attention to the ways Jesus’ family observed and fulfilled Jewish ritual life. Male babies were officially named at their circumcision on the eighth day after their birth. Celebrating the naming and circumcision of Jesus also celebrates how the community of the people called Israel, and by extension the people called church, are blessed by this name (Ye-shua, “The Lord Saves”), and how we continue this practice of naming others in Christ through baptism and through our ongoing support of one another as a living, active community in the risen Christ.
Together, these readings remind us of the power of naming and blessing as a form of humble service.
Because of the link between circumcision and baptism, underscored by Paul in Colossians 2:11-13, in remembering the circumcision of Jesus, we also remember key truths of our baptism. Baptism is initiated by God and offered to us through the community of the faithful. And baptism is a means of linking us, bodily, into God’s covenant of salvation through Jesus Christ. If you reaffirm baptism this night, remember that is what you are doing—reaffirming what God has begun and continues to work in you.
How do we live as those who are so named and so enfolded into covenant with God?
More concretely, what might you do, this very night, to visibly embody what it means to bless others in the name of Jesus?
A suggestion from a pastor friend of mine: Invite folks when they leave this service (probably late at night or early in the morning) to hang out in pairs for an hour or two where people may go late at night—liquor stores, convenience stores, just outside of bars, or at 24-hour restaurants (Waffle House, for example)—and offer to pray with and bless anyone who desires it. Clear this with the store owner first, of course! The point of this is to offer presence in listening, the voice of prayer, and an act of blessing for people in places who may need one, especially tonight.
If several of your worship planning team try this out before leading this service, perhaps they can offer brief testimonies about what happened when they extended the blessing of God to others in this way. Or you might show pictures or video of this happening (with the written permission of those photographed if they are at all recognizable!) as the readings from Numbers is read.
The United Methodist Book of Worship offers several possible services and other resources you may use or adapt to your setting.
Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) with links and other suggestions
Greeting: BOW 273 (Holy Name, New Year)
Greeting: BOW 296
Opening Prayer: UMH 255, BOW 277 (“O Almighty God”) 278, 297 (New Year, Holy Name)
Canticle/Act of Praise following the opening prayer: UMH 82, "Canticle of God's Glory" (Luke)
WORD AND RESPONSE
Covenant Renewal Service: BOW 288 (New Year)
Concerns and Prayers: BOW 279, BOW 495
Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Stateless people, refugees, and migrants
For other forms of Prayers of the People, see The Book of Common Prayer, pages 383-393
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion: BOW 551 (New Year, Covenant, Holy Name; “Almighty and most merciful God”)
Dismissal with Blessing: BOW 265 (from the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols). A deacon or assisting minister/layperson may dismiss the people using the first section and the pastor speak the blessing beginning with "And the blessing of God Almighty..."