On the evening of December 31, in many or perhaps most Unity churches, a burning bowl ceremony is held in which congregants are invited to release and let go that which no longer serves them. It's easy to understand why Unity chuches would adopt such a practice—the burning process is a transforming process and transformation is extremely important for metaphysical Christians.
But my sense is that people in other wings of the Christian faith—Catholic Christians and Evangelical Christians—do not understand or appreciate the biblical, theological and historical foundation of the burning bowl ceremony and why it is held on the eve of the new year.
The biblical foundation is Luke 4:16-21In Luke 4:16-21 Jesus enters the Synagogue and reads a passage from Hebrew scripture that defines his mission: preaching good news, releasing captives, restoring sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed and proclaiming a "year of the Lord." That this mission applies to both our internal state of mind as well as it applies to external states of well-being is revealed in his concluding statement "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Here is the passage from the ASV Bible:
4:16And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and he entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read. 4:17And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And he opened the book, and found the place where it was written,
4:18The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he anointed me
to preach good tidings to the poor:
He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovering of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty them that are bruised,
4:19To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
4:20And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down: and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. 4:21And he began to say unto them, To-day hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears.
This passage is placed at the very start of Jesus' ministry and Jesus proclaims an "acceptable year of the Lord." We hold the burning bowl at the start of our new year and we affirm that this coming year will be just, whole and prosperous.
The theological foundation is release and wholeness
More important is the central focus of this passage on "release and wholeness." The Good News begins with release—from captivity and oppression—and it makes way for wholeness—restoration of sight to we who are blind and restoration of right relationships which have been broken. We, too, place at the center of our spiritual transformation the release of that which oppresses and captures us—greed, grudges and grandeur—and we are to find ourselves restored and made whole to fully express our highest good.
It just may be that release and wholeness is the subtle, simple foundation of all spiritual growth. I only know that of all the wisdom in Catherine Ponder's Dynamic Laws of Prosperity, the following affirmation has returned to me time and again:
"I fully and freely forgive. I loose and let go. I let go and let God's love do it's perfect work in me, through me, for me. I let go and let God's love do its perfect work in the conscious, subconscious and superconscious activities of my mind, body and affairs. I give thanks that peace, health, plenty and happiness now reign supreme in me and in my world."
Catholic Christians learn and repeat many prayers to saints, from saints and about saints. Evangelical Christians memorize a good number of inspirational passages from the Bible. All are good. But few, in my opinion, have the power to transform one's life as this affirmation from Dr. Ponder. I encourage you to write it down, place it in your wallet or purse and commit it to memory.
The historical foundation is Watch Night
Plato encouraged us to sit quiet until the eternal essences became intelligible (known to our intuition). Jacob wrestled all night with the angel until he received his blessing. Jesus devoted entire nights in prayer. The ancient Egyptians practiced incubation, or temple sleep—a deep and reverent silence or meditation leading to a sleep state, which gave rise to a curative and illuminating experience. Charles Fillmore and others like him sat quiet until they perceived wisdom spoken by God. I believe it was Emma Curtis Hopkins who taught "Relax, relax, relax. Peace be still. Wait upon the Lord only."
This practice of sitting quietly in evening hours, waiting for guidance, was formalized by the Moravians in the 1700s. It was picked up by John Wesley and, through his Methodist movement, the practice of what we now know as Watch Night entered into north American Christian spirituality.
The most powerful moment of Watch Night occurred the evening of December 31, 1862, when Americans of African descent—slave and free—held vigil for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation which took effect in rebellion states the next day, on January 1, 1863. An Internet search on Watch Night or "Freedom's Eve" will surface many resources on the powerful impact of the Watch Night of 1862. If you select "images" instead of text for your search, you will see hundreds of flyers for this event, primarily in African-American churches. No wonder why.
I suspect that the reason Watch Night is typically held on New Year's Eve is because of the impact of Freedom's Eve in 1862. I don't know for sure, but it is no wonder why Rev. Ruth Moseley chose Isaiah 61, which was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4, as the vision statement for the Unity Urban Ministerial School.
Watch Night and the Burning Bowl Service
Watch Night is not the Burning Bowl. But they both occur on the eve of the new year, both celebrate release and wholeness and both draw from two millenia of western and Christian tradition.
That Unity and African-American churches are the primary expressions of religious practice on New Year's Eve has an important lesson, at least for Unity. Release is not simply forgiveness. It is not simply choosing to turn from greed, grudges and glorification. Release, at least as it was envisioned and taught by Jesus, is much closer to what African Americans envisioned in 1862—release from the unimaginable, release from the unbearable, release from that which puts us in total dispair.
The mistake we will most likely make when writing down that which no longer serves us is thinking too small, with too little imagination and faith. The words of Isaiah, the testimony of Jesus and the experience of African Americans call us to not let go of what we can imagine letting go, but rather to let go of that which we see no way forward for release and wholeness.
Contributed by Mark Hicks on 12/30/2018
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