Watch Night and the Eighth Principle

Published by FirstUUAdmin on

by AJ Fox and Susanne Bounds

Join us as we learn more about the tradition of Watch Night services in African American churches and about the 8th UU Principle.

Our Opening words today are In the Silence, by Sara Eileen La Wall.

Spirit of life and love,

In the silence
In the stillness
We hear the call of our own heart
Its tender dreams
Its sorrows and its triumphs

In the silence
In the stillness
We hear whispers of days gone by
Of dreams still becoming
The promise of the future

We celebrate together
Our individual journeys and dreams
And our collective ones
Knowing the journey is so much richer
With others to share in it.

In the name of all that is holy we pray.


Deck the Hall
Trad. Welsh Melody
English Lyrics by Thomas Oliphant
Public Domain Work
Performed by Eva Riebold, John Prescott, and Luke Prescott

I am so grateful to John and Luke Prescott and Eva for working out some socially-distanced recording for us during this whole mess for music-making. I’m firmly of the opinion that most things could be improved by an enthusiastic teenager who knows their way around a drum set. This lovely arrangement of one of the oldest winter carols we’ve got is likely to put a little pep in your step.

In true UU fashion, this carol has multiple sources and revisions over the years and was originally a Yule drinking song. This is perhaps the seasonal flurry we often experience before we come to cultivate moments of stillness and reflection. I hope it makes you as cheerful as it did me, and you can learn more about its history here.

Subtle, Sacred Sound
Words and Music by James Underberg
Permission Granted for Use in Online Services
Performed by James Underberg

James is one of my colleagues in the AUUMM and several weeks ago he generously shared videos of some of his original music with full permission for congregations to share these in services. I started listening through and when I heard this one, it immediately struck me as being appropriate for the theme of Stillness. You can hear this wonderful track ahead of time here:

And here is Jame’s bio: “James Underberg is a graduate student at Meadville Lombard Theological School. Born and raised on the Upper West Side, James is starting on the path to ministry after a prior career working to advance clean energy policy in New York State. James’ spiritual background has been primarily in contemplative traditions, including time in Buddhist and Quaker communities. He has also trained as a meditation teacher and an Internal Family Systems psychotherapy practitioner. James’ interests include supporting the congregation in individual spiritual development and discernment as a foundation for collective social justice action.”

Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella
Traditional French Carol (14th century)
Public Domain Work
Arranged by John Prescott, performed by John and Luke Prescott and Eva Riebold

Folks, it’s not often that I get this excited when I am doing research on music we plan to include in a service. I had sung this with choirs or played instrumental versions of this carol for years without ever pausing to ask myself, “Wait, who is Jeannette Isabella, and why is there a carol about this person?”

It turns out Jeanette and Isabella are two somebodies – peasant milkmaids from the Provence region of France in the early 1500s, to be exact. I absolutely love this church for the way we work at elevating and centering the folks on the margins of our society, even though we struggle sometimes in that work and we don’t do it perfectly. And, I love any story, parable, hymn, folksong, or metaphor that also works to elevate and center the folks at the margins of their time and place and this little carol is delightfully subversive in that way.

“Bring a Torch” recounts the story of two milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, who are heading to the stalls do to their cold, hard, work long before the sun is up and the rest of the more well-to-do villagers are soundly sleeping. They are the ones who discover Mary and the newborn Jesus among the farm animals and get the honor of grabbing torches and rousing the townsfolk to come see. How often do you think peasant milkmaids got to yell at nobility to get their warm hind ends out of bed? It gets better. This carol centers the beauty and humanity of Mary as a mother, first, and the beauty of birth and the new child, and in later verses Jeanette and Isabella continue to call the shots and chide the townspeople for talking too loudly around the sleeping baby. While it’s not my personal theology, I think this version of a Christmas story, or any good theology, does this elevating and centering of the ones we so often forget. What a special thing that someone as low in their society as a milkmaid gets to feature so prominently in bringing an encounter with the divine to their society. May we always remain open to the voices we don’t always hear from for the ways they can connect us to deeper truth and wisdom.

Here’s an English translation of the lyrics for you:
“Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella. Bring a torch, and quickly run! Christ is born, good folk of the village. Christ is born, and Mary’s calling. Ah! Ah! Beautiful is the mother. Ah! Ah! Beautiful is her child.

Quiet, all! Nor waken Jesus. Quiet, all, and whisper low. Silence, all, and gather ’round him. Talk and noise might waken Jesus. Hush! Hush! Quietly now he slumbers. Hush! Hush! Quietly now he sleeps.”

Give Us Justice, Give Us Peace
Dona Nobis Pacem Round
Public Domain Work
New text from BLM
New music by Emily McKinney
Performed by the Virtual First UU Choir

I’m excited to have a service that centers Watch Night and sad to admit I hadn’t ever heard of it until this church introduced me to it. I hope that this interpretation of “Dona Nobis Pacem” ties in well and helps us to understand that peace and stillness are products of having a truly free and just society where all people can share in safety, security, and full exercise of their rights. Remember – no justice, no peace!

Our closing words are Holy and Generous Love, by Elena Westbrook.

Go in hope, for the arc of the universe is long and we can bend it toward justice.

Go in courage, for together we have the strength to confront injustice in our daily lives and the larger world.

Go in love, because a holy and generous love is both the reason and the means by which we transform our lives.

Categories: Sermon