12.31.23, John 1:1-18 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Tonight many will celebrate Watch Night. Frederick Douglass said of the first Watch Night on December 31, 1862, “It is a day for poetry and song, a new song. These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine . . . are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn up on us.” Watch Night took place on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect. The following overview came to us by way of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There are some great pictures that went along with this article if you want to look it up online.
On New Years Eve in 1862 both enslaved and free black folks came together to celebrate, worship, and keep watch while they awaited official word that the Emancipation Proclamation, the federal order freeing all enslaved people in the rebelling South, had taken effect. This night was also known as “Freedom’s Eve”, and is still celebrated today by many families and communities who remember their enslaved ancestors and freedom, share in traditions of faith, and build up and draw upon the resilience that has kept their communities going for generations (nmaahc.si.edu).
Those first Watch Night gatherings were especially important because there were laws all over the south that forbid black folks to gather together even to worship (nmaahc.si.edu) out of fear that they would organize their liberation. Though, of course, folks still met anyway. Taking great risk to be together to worship and cultivate their faith, “including Christianity, Islam, and indigenous faith practices reflective of the homes from which they were stolen…(meeting in) praise houses on plantations or secretly gathered in the woods, where they practiced their faith under the protective cover of the trees and brush in what became known as ‘hush harbors’.” (nmaahc.si.edu).
At some point tomorrow my mother in law, Deborah, will send us a picture of a heaping serving of black eyed peas. Maybe this is a tradition that you keep too. While this is now a wider tradition in the U.S., black eyed peas, also known as cowpea, are native to Central Africa and were carried over by stolen peoples. Bringing a small piece of home with them. “Many West African cultures regard the pea as lucky, and memories of its luck remained with enslaved black people in the American South and still endure today (nmaahc.si.edu)”. Deborah’s plate might also include another food of celebration. Collard greens, which “represented the promise of prosperity” (nmaahc.si.edu).
It is interesting to have this passage, the beginning of the Gospel of John, come up on Watch Night. A night where we celebrate the light of justice reaching out towards liberation, freedom. Theologian Allen Dwight Callahan notes, “The prologue of the Gospel of John is an account of the divine Word coming to dwell with, in and through human beings” (TTONL, 186). We sit in the both/ and of pointing to heavenly prehistory and the earthly history we are currently more founded in (TTONL, 186). After the phrase “in the beginning” there are no other words to that point to the Creation story in Genesis. There is no “make”, “create”, or “form”. Instead the language points more to the “epiphany at Sinai in Exodus 34” (TTONL, 186). Another story of liberation.
Jesus’ arrival is described in cosmological terms and not of human terms. Mary and Joseph are not even mentioned in this account. (JANT, 157). From the start we get the fullness of the rather high Christgology that is reflected throughout the Gospel of John.
We also have this language of “light/ darkness” that is a theme throughout John. And this language can also be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, though they likely did not have direct influence in the Gospel of John (JANT, 158). In verses 10-12 we get some solid foreshadowing of how it is going to go for Jesus. A pointing to a deeper truth only understood later… The incarnation in God is not an emptying but a fullness (WBC,519).
Those who came together on the first Watch Night and celebrated emancipation, knew that they would still not be treated equally in a society that saw them still as less than human. The light overcame the darkness of slavery, yet… full freedom is yet to be realized. Black folks still know and feel this in their bones today. We still have more work to do.
We proclaim that while God’s justice can feel painstakingly slow… it is still worth fighting for. I recall Rev. Stephanie Spellers’ book The Church Cracked Open that came out in the wake of the summer of 2020. Your vestry and many others in our community have read this book. She recalled the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and how so many of the leaders worked hard to bring about liberation for their communities. All the while they knew they would never actually see the full liberation they were still striving for 100 years after the first Watch Night. Rev. Spellers reminds us that it was the work of the fight for liberation that kept them going. Not that they would see it realized. That they could hang their hat on the truth that they were trying their hardest to make this dream realized.
What grace is God calling us to be part of realizing now? What ways do we need to turn back to the truth that God’s love and justice has always been and we are called to not just reclaim that truth but to live it out? Whether we are talking about racial justice, climate crisis, the growing unhoused epidemic, wars that are impacting people all over the world, we must remember that we are called to be people who believe that the darkness does not overcome the light. The light came down to walk with us and to show us the way. That we too are the light that is empowered by and with God to walk forward, no matter how slow, so that the fullness of the incarnation of Jesus Christ may be realized. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (NRSV Bible). May it be so.
Resources: Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Church Cracked Open, True to Our Native Land, nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/historical-legacy-watch-night, Women’s Bible Commentary