Over the New Year period my family and I spent a week on the Isle of Wight, where I grew up.
It sometimes surprises people up here in Wakefield when I tell them that the majority of the population on the Isle of Wight are normal working class people. The yacht and second home owners only stay around during the summer months!
A feature of my typical working-class upbringing was the background superstition. My dad bought The Sun and The News of the World, my dad for the bingo (in the days before the National Lottery) and my mum always read Mystic Meg’s horoscope (Mystic Meg was interestingly used in the early days of the National Lottery TV show, demonstrating which part of society the lottery was really aimed at).
The tone for all this was set by my mum. My siblings and I all knew our star sign (my children wouldn’t know what a star sign was). We avoided walking under ladders and on cracked paving stones. Umbrellas were not put up indoors, and new shoes were never placed on a table. A cracked mirror meant seven year’s bad luck. There was a general note of anxiety to family life, with the eventual inevitability of ill health or money worries casting their shadow.
There was a general note of anxiety to family life, with the eventual inevitability of ill health or money worries casting their shadow.
New Year's Eve superstitions
But the superstition levels were turned up on New Year’s Eve. I never really liked New Year’s Eve. For one thing it signalled the end of the joyous school Christmas holidays with their lack of routine, nice food, presents and great TV.
But looking back at it now, it is clear to see that my mum was very nervous on the 31st December.
“Seeing The New Year In” was a big deal for our little isolated family of six plus grandmother, and things became very weird in the moments following Big Ben’s chimes. We were not a touchy-feely family, and yet we had to all hold hands and sing Auld Lang Syne just after we had given one another a New Year’s kiss on the cheek. This all felt very awkward.
But the most anxiety-inducing of all was the superstition: My mum had my dad bring tins of food and some money over the front door threshold as the church bells were pealing at the stroke of midnight presumably in order to ensure that the supernatural forces would ensure we’d have enough in the year to come.
The fear of evil days
And so I smiled last Sunday morning as I sat in the church service at Grace Church Isle of Wight, in the town in which I grew up.
The preacher was speaking from Psalm 49 (you can think of a Psalm like the lyrics from a song). The writer of it asks “Why should I fear when evil days come?” (v 5). Think of a day that you know is coming that frightens you or leaves you deeply anxious: losing your job, a terrible accident, the news that a loved one has only weeks to live, the next and worse pandemic, your secrets being revealed, your own death. They are all examples of evil days.
And I smiled because the fear of ‘evil days’ was exactly what was driving all the superstitious anxiety in my childhood home!
It would be easy to look back now with a mocking tone. But money was always tight (all those Christmas presents were bought on the tick) and both my parents did suffer with far from good health (both died in their early sixties). And they had four children to bring up at a time when Thatcher's Britain had left many of our sort feeling left behind by the rest of society. There was plenty to worry about.
As ever the Bible is honest about our deepest fears, in ways modern people are not.
The psalm writer points out that the cloud of death hangs over every life: “For all can see that the wise die, that the foolish and the senseless also perish” (v 10). And money cannot protect us, no matter how much we have: “People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish. (v 12)”
Of course, we were not the only family to keep superstitions, and neither has superstition gone from our culture. Maybe it’s because, generally speaking, thirty years on society is so much wealthier that we don't feel the need to resort to Mystic Meg and her horoscopes quite so much. We - naively - feel more secure because of our comfortable lives.
But it is still there. Note how often someone today will search for a piece of timber as they say ‘touch wood’ when talking about their hopes for the future. We still know that there are things we cannot control, and that ‘evil days’ can’t be put off forever. Death, that ultimate evil day, will come to all whom we love. And to us. And then what?
Note how often someone today will... say ‘touch wood’ when talking about their hopes for the future. We still know that there are things we cannot control, and that ‘evil days’ can’t be put off forever.
Christianity and our deepest fears
Christianity doesn’t say life will be a bed of roses. Far from it. Evil days will come. But a Christian does not need to live in anxious fear. Because the fundamental problem we all have - that we have rejected the God who is there and who made us and, like it or not, rules over us and must judge us, has offered a way to be at peace with him forever. He says that whilst no human can give to God a ransom for their own life (v 7) God himself “will redeem me from the realm of the dead” (v 15).
Redeem means ‘buy back’. He’s saying God will pay the ransom price required for all the ways he has rebelled against God in order that he can have the thing that even the wealthiest person cannot buy: eternal life.
It’s a bold assertion, bordering on arrogance! Or you could accuse him for being far fetched.
And you might even say it was another form of superstition.
But about a thousand years later Jesus Christ came, and said “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).
And no serious historian doubts that Jesus Christ really said that. And millions of serious, thoughtful people through history have concluded that his claim to have risen from the dead, having paid that ransom price on the cross when he died, is true.
New Year’s Eve still leaves me feeling uneasy, that strange mix of feelings hangs around.
But there’s no real anxiety now. And if my mum had known and understood the claims of Christianity, she would not have needed to feel so anxious. And our New Year’s Eve traditions would have been quite different (even if school was still just around the corner).
With thanks to Oli Tucker, the preacher at Grace Church Isle of Wight on Sunday 2nd January 2022.
Photo is of New Year's Day Fireworks at Sandown.
1 Hear this, all you peoples;
listen, all who live in this world,
2 both low and high,
rich and poor alike:
3 My mouth will speak words of wisdom;
the meditation of my heart will give you understanding.
4 I will turn my ear to a proverb;
with the harp I will expound my riddle:
5 Why should I fear when evil days come,
when wicked deceivers surround me –
6 those who trust in their wealth
and boast of their great riches?
7 No one can redeem the life of another
or give to God a ransom for them –
8 the ransom for a life is costly,
no payment is ever enough –
9 so that they should live on for ever
and not see decay.
10 For all can see that the wise die,
that the foolish and the senseless also perish,
leaving their wealth to others.
11 Their tombs will remain their houses for ever,
their dwellings for endless generations,
though they had named lands after themselves.
12 People, despite their wealth, do not endure;
they are like the beasts that perish.
13 This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,
and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
14 They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd
(but the upright will prevail over them in the morning).
Their forms will decay in the grave,
far from their princely mansions.
15 But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.
16 Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendour of their houses increases;
17 for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendour will not descend with them.
18 Though while they live they count themselves blessed –
and people praise you when you prosper –
19 they will join those who have gone before them,
who will never again see the light of life.
20 People who have wealth but lack understanding
are like the beasts that perish.