The start of a new year makes us more conscious than usual of the passage of time – increasingly rapid as we get older - and that “man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live.” Few of us looking back over the last year would claim to have made the best possible use of it. Hence the practice of making New Year resolutions. I don’t go in for them, and not just because they’re usually so quickly broken that they make little difference. To me they smack rather too much of Pelagianism, that very British heresy which claims that we can become the good people we aspire to be simply by exerting our wills.
Samuel Johnson, a truly great Englishman, took a different approach. He acknowledged his need of God’s grace. And so, almost every year from 1745 to the end of life, having seen the New Year in and before going to bed he wrote a prayer for himself. He composed this one on January 1st 1773:
“Almighty God, by whose mercy my life has been yet prolonged to another year, grant that thy mercy may not be in vain. Let not my years be multiplied to encrease (sic) my guilt, but as age advances, let me become more pure in my thoughts, more regular in my desires, and more obedient to thy laws. Let not the cares of the world distract me, nor the evils of age overwhelm me. But continue and encrease thy loving kindness towards me, and when thou shalt call me hence, receive me to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
The fear of being overwhelmed by the evils of age is something which faces an increasing minority of us, and those of us who are struggling with it know all too well their need of help - both human and divine. What faces all of us at the beginning of 2017 is the fear of being overwhelmed by the evils of the age – the times we’re living through. How can we speak meaningfully of peace on earth and goodwill towards all people? How can we be truly joyful knowing that so many of our fellow human beings – men, woman and children, are being slaughtered daily? Is there nothing we can do to stem the terrible tide of violence that threatens more and more of the world?
Twenty years ago the IRA attempted to rip the heart out of Manchester using a lorry containing the most powerful bomb to have exploded in England since the end of the Second World War. The damage was enormous. Miraculously no one was killed, but the slaughter could easily have been even more horrendous than that which we’ve seen in recent terrorist attacks. Soon afterwards a service of thanksgiving was held in Manchester cathedral. What moved the congregation more than anything else in that service was when a single child chorister sang “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” That’s something we all might profitably consider – despite what I said earlier about resolutions.
In practice “to let peace on earth begin with me” will involve different things to different people. For some it might include learning to refrain from making inflammatory remarks or sweeping generalisations – not always easy when feelings are running high, but a real contribution, however modest, to peace. For others it could mean patching up a quarrel. Modest contributions to peace, whatever they are, are not to be despised, especially when multiplied and backed by the assurance that the light that Christ brought into the world is a light that no darkness can quench. At the Christingle service we sang the children’s song “Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light . . . you in your small corner, and I in mine.” Among his parting words to his disciples were these: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” However great the evils of the world we needn’t feel overwhelmed by them, and we can, by the grace of God, make a difference.
With every good wish for 2017