God organized society around a seven-day cycle that ends in a day of rest. The world has taken that seven-day cycle and added it to a solar cycle of roughly 365 days fixed on a point in space to which we arrive each year, marking a complete orbit around the sun.
In the liturgical calendar, we have arrived at a fixed point in time to celebrate the arrival of a son. As secular society drifts away from religious celebrations of Christmas and into shopping extravaganzas, even Protestant Christians might want to think about prioritizing the cycles of Christ’s birth and resurrection rather than the orbit around the sun.
But we are here, and during Advent, we all focus on the birth of Christ. It could do us some good, while focusing on his birth, to also focus on his death. As one Christmas song tells us, He was born to die. On that cross some 2,000 years ago, the divine son of God was fully God but also fully man. Christians focus on his divinity, but we could use some focus on his humanity. Gethsemane makes no sense without understanding that Jesus, an actual historical figure whose death was documented by the Roman historians, was also fully man.
That day in Jerusalem, the innocent man was tortured, beaten to within an inch of his life, forced to carry a cross after having a crown of thorns shoved into his scalp and nailed to that cross he had carried. Soldiers hoisted up the cross, and gravity then pulled down his body around the nails that fixed him there. His reaction was remarkable. Luke, the physician who interviewed the eyewitnesses to the event, tells us Jesus cried out to God, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
If you, an innocent person, were subjected to that, I doubt your dying words would involve forgiving the people killing you. Luke also chronicled the execution of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Men stoned him to death, and with his dying breath, he asked God to forgive his murderers.
When we encounter people who insult or injure us, our natural reaction is to demand an apology, judge the sincerity of the apology and possibly give preconditions that must be fulfilled before we forgive. Between us and God, we must repent. But the human on the cross and the human martyr demanded no such thing. They forgave. There was no apology. There were no preconditions to forgiveness. There was just forgiveness.
At Christmas, nostalgia sweeps in and overwhelms us. We tend to reassess the last year, last Christmases or favorite Christmases. Often, past pain surfaces in our consciences. We have been insulted or aggrieved, and we cling to those grievances. We let the things others did to us control us. Forgiveness allows us to stop letting others control us. By forgiving without condition, we exercise the power of resetting a relationship in a way that prevents the other person from controlling us. In so doing, we also acknowledge that though we may be blameless in the transgression that happened, we have undoubtedly transgressed against others. We should therefore forgive, if only in the hope that others forgive us.
In my experience, the hardest person to forgive is oneself. We hang on to the dumb things we have done in the past and let the shame pollute our conscience. We must be willing to forgive others without condition, but we must also be willing to forgive ourselves. As the earth moves back to the starting point of a new year and we reflect on each mile of the preceding year’s orbit, we need to unshackle ourselves from our own guilt and anger at ourselves.
The only man who ever lived sin-free was tortured, beaten and executed, and in his final breaths, he chose to forgive. If we refuse to forgive ourselves or others, we suggest our consciences have been pricked more severely than his — and we know that is not so. At Christmas, give the gift of forgiveness, let go, and move on.
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