Christmas is a special time. It is a time of hope, love, and forgiveness. When I say that it is a time of hope, love and forgiveness, many people give me a strange look when I get to the word "forgiveness." When we look at the candles through Advent, hope, peace, joy, and love are represented. In most Christmas stories, those are the highlighted attributes. So when I say that this is a time of forgiveness, it is out of the norm. However, I would argue that you cannot find any of the commonly-held attributes of Christmas without having received and been given forgiveness. It is a two-way street, in which one cannot fully feel the good things of the season if one cannot let go of the burdens of their heart.
Of course, Christmas starts with a choice of forgiveness, when God sent Christ into the world. God did not need to do this. God could have chosen another way, but out of God's love and promise, he has chosen to remain active in this world so far as to send Christ as a beacon, teaching us to forgive as God has forgiven us.
It is striking how important forgiveness is within the New Testament. It is significant that the very first thing Jesus says to the disciples when he comes back is, “Peace be with you.” Then he commissions them by breathing on them, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
You hear the line so often around Christmastime in the secular world, based on the fact that this is a special time when people try to be a little nicer, to treat each other with a bit more kindness, and have a bit more hope. I argue that you cannot truly embrace that unless you have forgiveness in your heart, because the anger always gets in the way.
I remember a member of one of my congregations. June was a bitter woman, and very reclusive. I remember seeing her, if I were lucky, maybe once a month. After years of meeting with her, she finally told me of her troubled past. It was a past marred by abusive relationships, devastating tragedies, and many bad choices. For her, removing herself from the world was a form of protection, though her anger was never too deep.
One Christmas I went to visit June. Knowing she was all alone, I brought her a plate of my special cookies. We sat and talked. It had been a little while since we had previously spoken, and for the first time, she gave me a smile. She said, “I just read Job.” In my mind, I thought, “Oh, no!” But June continued, “God was always with Job, wasn’t he? And when Christ came into the world, God was with him, wasn’t he? And Christ promised God’s love to everyone, didn’t he?”
I replied yes, and she continued. “I hated God because I thought God had done this to me.” A smile began to fill her face. I saw a sparkle in her eye that I had never before seen, as she turned to me and said, “I forgave God, and he forgave me!” That Christmas, June learned the reason for the season, because she was able to make the hard choice to forgive. It changed her life! From that time on, June turned into one of the happiest people I knew. Every time I saw her, she would remind me of that day by saying, “Everyday can be Christmas, when you truly have forgiveness in your heart.”
As we finish the last week of Advent and prepare to meet Christ on Christmas, think about what and who you need to forgive, and find true forgiveness in your heart. Only then can you truly experience the full Christmas miracle.
If someone came up to me and said, “Quick, give me a definition of joy,” I think I would have a hard time. On one hand, sure, I could say “extreme happiness,” but is that really the definition? Plus, I know that there are many times in my life that I have been joyful but not happy, like my grandfather’s funeral a few years back, where I felt the pain and sadness for my loss, but joy that he was freed from the bondage of his Alzheimer’s.
Yes, I am overthinking it, but that is the problem with words like “joy” that have become cliché. They tend to take on many meanings that detract from the real meaning underlying the season. The joy that we talk about when it comes to Advent and Christmas is one that comes with scripture and from the knowledge of God.
This week we light the third candle of Advent, which represents this joy. The tradition of the Advent wreath and the Advent candles is one of the later traditions to be developed. In the west, Advent began to be observed in the late 6th century as a shorter, less strict version of Lent. Just as each week of Advent has a meaning, in earlier practices, each week of Lent also had a defined meaning.
Halfway through Lent, the fourth Sunday to be exact, there was a respite from the strict fasting of the season called Laetare or “mothering” Sunday, where pink vestments were worn. On Laetare Sunday, the pope would pass out flowers and encourage people to celebrate the promise of the Resurrection. The toned-down pink color represented this respite from the dark violet of Lent.
As you may have guessed, this is where the pink candle comes from. As they condensed the seven weeks of Lent to the four of Advent, the middle week became Gaudete Sunday, which has a parallel meaning. Gaudete comes from the first word of the Latin Introit, which translates as “Rejoice.”
Contrary to what many people assume, the pink candle does not represent love, but joy, and the pink color of the candle symbolizes this respite from Advent to open up a true celebration of the joy which is found in the coming Christ.
The scripture that we have for this week is one that I call an “ordered life” reading. Like Micah 6:8, it gives us a direction of how we are to live out our lives as Christians. It starts as the Latin Introit did, “Rejoice always,” and goes on to say that we are called to perpetually live an ordered life of joy, prayer, acceptance, and exploration.
It is an interesting passage, because it does not give a Pollyannaish, “life is all perfect” view of Christianity; rather, it says that we should rejoice in everything, good and bad. Moreover, it implies that there will be times of learning and struggles, but when we do give ourselves over to the joy in Christ, we can begin to understand peace, which just happens to be the theme next week.
I think it is fitting that in the first service we will celebrate joy as we have the kids perform their Christmas pageant. I know that they will be giving a joyful presentation of the Christmas story. And through their gifts and presence, we might connect to a joy and maybe have a respite from the crazy season to experience the joy that comes from accepting the gift of Christ.
One of my first memories of abject fear was when I was a little boy, 4 or 5, and overheard a newscast that they were sending American arms overseas. I would not let anyone in the house wear short sleeves because I was convinced that they were going around chopping off people’s arms and sending them overseas. In a silly way, my fear was another, though extremely minor, casualty of war. Lately, I have been thinking about impact. As a small child, in many ways I was completely removed from whatever conflict they were talking about on the news, yet for me, it was a moment that was so impactful it is still vivid, and that fear, though now I know it to be irrational, I can still see.
The problem with war is that people never see all of the casualties. Moreover, it is impossible to understand a war’s entire impact. During war, it is easy to see the fallen soldiers, ruined cities, and so on, but we often overlook the deeper impact on families and communities. We also tend to miss the long-term effects.
In learning more about 9/11, I am amazed that those horrid attacks were the culmination of many wars, sanctions, and other actions by many countries. Regardless of the reasoning behind the actions, it was their impact that drove the attacks. In fact, when scholars look into terrorist cells and separatist movements, often what they find is that the those who lead them base their hate upon experiences stemming from the unforeseen impact of “wars.” It is also important to remember that an armed conflict is not the only kind of war. We have wars in our communities when we choose not to discuss and debate an issue, but rather force agendas or do whatever it takes to get our way.
Inevitably at this time of year, someone will start talking about the war on Christmas. This is a dangerous war for people of faith, because its impact is tough, and the one who suffers most is God. Personally, I think that the war on Christmas comes from the Christians, or more specifically, Christians who are trying to make a name for themselves. The problem is that the impact is greater than the war itself. More importantly, we do not know the impact until many years later.
I like to remind people that the reason why church attendance in the United States is in decline has little to do with what is actually happening in churches today. Rather, it is the impact of what happened in the past. In the Protestant tradition, this has a lot to do with the wars between different sects and traditions, but also actions taken against groups of people like the LGBT community, divorced individuals, those who provide or receive abortion, etc. Setting the moral arguments aside, the war itself has had a great impact. I cannot tell you how many times people will point to those actions to highlight the hypocrisy of the church and explain why the church is just not relevant.
I say this because I do not think that we can understand the power of peace until we understand the impact of war. Through understanding war, we gain insight into the way in which evil is present in the world and how it uses our fears and our powers to destroy real relationships with each other and with God. But when we embrace peace, it is more than just the absence of war. Its meaning points to a just society where people are well cared for, society is just, and righteousness is foundational.
So, as we continue the journey to the Christmas story, look at the wars you are fighting and find ways to replace war with peace.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen