How many pass the guilty night
In revellings and frantic mirth!
The creature is their sole delight,
Their happiness the things of Earth:
For us suffice the season past;
We choose the better part at last.
We will not close our wakeful eyes,
We will not let our eyelids sleep,
But humbly lift them to the skies,
And all a solemn vigil keep;
So many years on sin bestowed,
Can we not watch one night with God?
I was brought up a Methodist. For that matter, I still am a Methodist; only now I’m an Anglican Methodist, just like John Wesley, who said at the end of his life that he lived and died a member of the Church of England, and trusted that all who followed him would do the same. The Methodist Church, alas, is inclined to be narrow in its demands, while the Church of England is notoriously broad, so here I am.
There are, nevertheless, a few things I miss; chorus hymns (though I did on one memorable occasion inflict What a Friend we have in Jesus on a notoriously stuffy city centre congregation, who seemed quite to enjoy the experience), I miss those; and constant social events revolving round the ingestion of gallons of thick brown tea; and most of all, the Watch Night Service.
We never had a midnight service at Christmas when I were a lad; we Methodists are logical people and couldn’t understand why Jesus should have been born precisely on the stroke of midnight; but we knew for certain that the old year ended and the new one began at 0.00 on January 1st. And we considered that the best place to start the New Year was God’s place. For myself, though naturally averse to symbolism, I have always found the new year a symbolic moment, and prefer to start it the way I mean to go on.
Why, I hear someone at the back ask, is it called a watch night service? Well, that’s Charles Wesley’s contribution. He wrote a number of hymns for the occasion, including the verses at the top of this page.
There are other ways, though, in which midnight is a special moment. More, perhaps, than any other time, it represents the moment we call NOW; neither past nor future, but immediate. It’s all very well for philosophers to say that the present doesn’t exist; that NOW represents the tiniest imaginable fraction of a second, as against the infinity of past and future; the fact is that we live, for the time being, in a physical world; and from that world’s point of view, only the present exists; the past is over, the future has yet to be; any action we take, any decision we come to has to be now, there is no other time in which we can act.
Perhaps it is symptomatic of the troubles of our age that the present is so frequently neglected in favour of past or future. Rarely, for example, does the News, in theory dedicated to reporting the present, actually do its job in this regard. When an important event is expected, the news media spend up to a fortnight speculating on what will happen, what will be announced, how the politicians will react to it, what effect all the possibilities might have. Then the moment comes, and if you don’t catch the exact news bulletin that announces it, you may never know what it was, as the next three days will be spent on people’s comments, reactions and opinions of the event. The event itself is swamped.
This can’t be right. If I turn on the wireless for News, I want to know what’s happening in the world, not what somebody thinks is going to happen tomorrow or his opinion of what happened yesterday. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. When Jesus told us to take no thought for the morrow, perhaps this was the very phenomenon he foresaw; there are better ways to spend our time than in idle speculation; and all speculation is idle, it serves only to while away the time until the event. Perhaps the fashionable dissatisfaction with Christmas reflects the same problem; we spend months preparing for a day which, when it comes, passes swiftly and is gone. If we were to live in our proper place, which is the now, perhaps our anxieties and our disappointments might be lessened.
Omar Khayyam, not always the soundest of philosophers, got this one right:
Come, my beloved, fill the cup that clears
Today of past regrets and future fears;
Tomorrow? Why, tomorrow I may be
Myself with yesterday’s seven thousand years.
Speculation is pointless; we all know it’s always the unexpected that happens, anyway. But what of the past? Living in the past can be comfortable like a pair of old slippers; is there harm in that? Alas, yes; because the past can poison both present and future. Past pleasures are good to remember; but remembering past hurts, past pains, past resentments leads only to grief. People describe some horror, or they talk of Myra Hindley's obscene crimes and say, how can there be forgiveness for that? But the only alternative to forgiveness is eternal bitterness. If we all took an eye for an eye, said Gandhi, we would all be blind. Without forgiveness there can be no progress; not to forgive is to deny yourself both a present and a future, and to live wholly in the past. There is no happiness, no fulfilment that way. Not for such purposes did God make Time.
New Year is a good moment to work on forgiveness, to balance the accounts of the past year and close the books. How many times in the year have we asked God to forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us? Time to keep our part of the bargain!
In the Old Testament, of course, a bargain is a Covenant; and Methodists follow the Watch Night service with a Covenant Service on the first Sunday of the New Year, when God’s people renew their promises to a God whose promises are always new. We Anglicans don’t have the service; but perhaps in our hearts we could do the same.