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.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen