On this day, Dec. 30, 1770, America’s first-known “watch-night” service is held at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia. And thus began the story of my misery growing up in Watch-night services.
I loved most everything about church. I even gave up watching Sunday night Disney and missing each year’s showing of The Wizard of Oz, which was always on a Sunday night. Of course, I actually did not give them up. My parents gave them up for me. We went to church on Sunday and Wednesday nights, no questions asked, no illnesses faked. I often went on Thursday nights, too, while my parents went out for the church’s visitation program. This is the way life was. It worked for me.
But no matter how much I went along the Watch-night service was a chore above all chores. It started around 8 or 9 PM. We had a service, then food, and then a movie followed by the Lord’s Supper as the New Year came in. I started out the whole thing not being able to stay awake and the rest of the evening was a struggle with “I would do anything to be in a bed.” I did my best to sleep on the church’s metal chair. Ouch. It was a long night of endurance.
The one thing I remember about the movies is that they were crummy. My love for the church never upped my tolerance for schmaltz. And those old time movie projectors were as loud as the volume of the movie.
But the one lesson of the watch-night service, the takeaway, was that maybe this would be the year that Jesus returned again. It was a reminder, a signal, a benchmark that what we were was people waiting for our redemption from heaven, a pilgrim people. Our citizenship was in heaven and we did not belong to this world. That lesson came across loud and clear to me. I bought it! I still buy it!
My Pastor had on his desk, facing the parishioner sitting across from him, a reminder that could not be avoided. It simply read, “It May Be Today.” Changes the conversation a bit, don’t you think?!!! It answers quite a few questions just on its own. Perspective works miracles.
From time to time a parishioner has suggested a watch-night service to me. I grow pale, the blood runs cold, and fear strikes my brow. I quickly try to figure out a way to say “No Way.” I simply cannot stay awake that late, for anything, anybody. If Jesus comes back at night, I will be asleep. I tried to stay awake, Jesus. Honest, I tried.