by Donald A.G. Burling
The year 1701 was the shortest in British history: it began on the 25th March and ended on 31st December. Moreover eleven days were cancelled, in spite of protests from people who imagined that their lives had been shortened by eleven days. The occasion was the revision of our calendar to match the Gregorian calendar in use on the Continent.
There is an ancient tradition of regarding March as the beginning of the year. Unlike January when everything is still in the grip of winter, now the days are lengthening and we see signs of life in garden and hedgerow. The Jewish religious year begins with the first new moon in March, the Passover being held a fortnight later. As the lunar cycle is slightly shorter than one twelfth of the solar year, they have to fit in an extra month every two or three years. The Moslem calendar similarly is based on new moons, without such adjustment, so the month of Ramadan creeps back a few days each year. Our own financial year ends on the 31st March, the tax year on the 5th April.
By the end of February most of the resolutions made on the 1st January will have been broken and abandoned. If a resolution is to stand any chance of surviving, you need first to have decided that the change of habit is worthwhile, and that any breaches of the resolution will not be an excuse for abandoning it. You will then be free to struggle with the habit you want to break.
The difficulty all of us have in sticking to resolutions illustrates the limited control we have over our own behaviour. Like the rest of the animal kingdom we have instincts which largely determine what we want to do. They are modified by habits we have learned, and by awareness of what others expect of us. But unlike animals we also have a conscience, an innate sense of right and wrong which according to the Bible was first acquired when Eve and then Adam tasted the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. These two are frequently in conflict. How this conflict turns out depends on our personalities, the nature and strength of the temptation and of our determination to keep on the right track. But none of us can honestly claim to be consistent in always choosing the way of conscience. We are all sinners by nature.
This conflict is graphically described by St. Paul in the epistle to the Romans, chapter 7. “The good that I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will”. As a naturally conscientious person, his own failure to keep to God’s law drives him to desperation. But a few verses later he can write “There is no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus”. He has realised that if we have truly repented and surrendered to Christ, God regards us not as failing mortals but as saints.
The realisation of this can put a new spring in our step this March. It does not give us a licence to be careless about sin, but it can set us free from the constant fear of doing the wrong thing. May we all discover the blessing of having our conduct directed by the Spirit.