Daniel Benedict, comments on Covenant Renewal at the New Year
Methodists have a long tradition of making covenant with God at the new year, although most do not currently practice covenant making in the rigorous way of the early Methodists. Our hymnal has the vestiges of the covenant service in the prayer that begins, "I am no longer my own, but thine." ("A Covenant Prayer in the Weleyan Tradition," 607, The United Methodist Hymnal) Wesley's journal entries give us a glimpse of the size of gatherings and the sense of the powerful work of grace.
Sun., JANUARY 1, 1775. — We had a larger congregation at the renewal of the Covenant than we have had for many years; and I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of his grace, healing all their backslidings.
Sun., JANUARY 2, 1780. — We had the largest congregation at the renewal of our covenant with God, which ever met upon the occasion; and we were thoroughly convinced, that God was not departed from us. He never will, unless we first depart from him.
Sat., JANUARY 1, 1785. — Whether this be the last or no, may it be the best year of my life! Sunday, 2. A larger number of people were present this evening at the renewal of our covenant with God, than was ever seen before on the occasion.
(Excerpts from John Wesley's Journal, Works of Wesley)
Covenant Service or Intercession?
Covenant making: At the heart of Christian devotion is a sense that we are not our own, but that through God's claim upon us in Christ through baptism, we are God's servants. From time to time, Christians need to make a solemn renewal of the covenant, lest we hold back from God what we once gave to God but over time have hoarded for ourselves. The early Methodists adopted a form of covenant renewal and found that New Year's Eve or Day was a very suitable time for this. The introductory material in The United Methodist Book of Worship (288) suggests that, ideally, the service of covenant renewal should be held only once in the year.
I take that to mean there may be other times for the church to celebrate and renew the baptismal covenant (Baptism of the Lord, Easter, Pentecost, and so on); but that a thoroughgoing, "in-your-face" (I mean that respectfully) kind of covenant renewal called for in the "Covenant Renewal Service" (UMBOW 288) has such gravity about it that Christians cannot and should not do it more often than once a year.
This is one approach to the New Year observance in Christian practice. Another approach is that of holding the whole creation before God in prayer.
St. Paul calls the church to make the most of time:
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-20, NRSV)