God exemplified the real spirit of Christmas by forgiving us, and He asks us to demonstrate it by forgiving others.
In his little book The Christmas Quilt,1 Thomas J. Davis tells the story of an elderly mother in failing health who was waiting expectantly for her son, Joe, to arrive after many long years away from the family home. Over the years, letters arrived at the little house nestled in the foothills of a Georgia mountain, letters containing unfulfilled promises that he would come to visit. This Christmas, like so many others, everybody humored their beloved Mamma, convinced that Joe wouldn’t show up this year either.
Joe wasn’t interested in the family anymore, according to his sister, Lois. She was full of resentments against her brother with whom she had grown up. They’d played together with the lizards in the backyard and gone swimming in Smoky Hollow Creek. They’d sat together on the wooden pews of the church, sweating as much from the preacher’s thundering threats of hell fire for the unrepentant as from the summer’s heat. Well, Lois was not about to forgive her brother. It was high time for Joe to take up his responsibilities as a brother and son.
One day, after watching her mother become ever weaker and more frail as Christmas approached, Lois sat down, tears rolling down her cheeks, to write her brother one last letter: “If you don’t come this time, you won’t see her alive.” Lois had finally decided to forgive her brother, and now she just hoped he would accept her apology and return home.
Meanwhile, Mamma kept working on her quilt every day, cutting and sewing the remnants to create scenes from the birth of the Baby Jesus. One of them depicted a lonely shepherd walking toward Bethlehem’s manger, not because he was forced to, but because he wanted to. That’s how Mamma saw her lost son, walking toward the family home, not because he had to, but because he really wanted to come back.
Christmas day arrived, and there was a knock at the door. The prodigal son had returned at last, and everybody rejoiced—his sister, because she had forgiven and been forgiven; the mother, because she had never stopped forgiving.
Forgiveness connects us with the Divine
Christmas represents the first divine act of forgiveness on this earth. That Baby, born of the Holy Spirit and a poor teenager with no fame or wealth, reflects both the ordinary and the inconceivably transcendent. The forgiveness we exercise daily connects us with the Divine and assures us of our perpetual identity as sons and daughters of the omnipotent God. For His highest virtue—His love—was manifest in the Christmas manger, and we, the beneficiaries of that generous gift, are invited to share it with those who have offended us.
The heavens opened that night to some humble shepherds, to whom the angels announced the arrival of the Son of God: “ ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ ”2 This blessing reminds us of the name Isaiah assigned to the Son of God—“Prince of Peace”3—identifying the Baby with the Messiah. The angels were amazed at what God had done through this Child, who would bring salvation to a humanity alienated from its Maker. The walls of the celestial city could not contain the boundless joy in heaven, so the angelic praises spilled over onto the earth! The divine Child was none other than the Savior promised throughout the Old Testament, the Prince of Peace who would reconcile a fallen world with its Creator.
The word in the original Greek for peace carries the same meaning as the Hebrew shalom. The Hebrew word does not simply mean “absence of war or conflict.” Rather, it points to the presence of a social harmony. Those who receive this Messianic peace are the “people of good will” or the people who are recipients of God’s good will.4 The passage also suggests that those who receive God’s good will are to show that same good will toward their neighbors.
First Christmas Gift exhibits God’s mercy
What is so amazing about this first Christmas gift is that so few expected it or even realized they needed it. Suppose that someone surprised you with a gift, someone you didn’t even know, but who chose you from pure goodness of his or her heart, to receive it. That is how God, through His mercy, His unmerited grace, His infinite love, surprised us with the gift of His Son, even when we didn’t know who He was, even when we didn’t realize how much we need that Gift.
Bill and Marietta Yeager and their five children were camping in the Montana mountains when a man snuck into their camp and kidnapped their seven-year-old daughter, Susie, from the tent she was sharing with her older sister. It is not possible to imagine what this mother suffered when, a few months later, she learned that her daughter had died at the hands of a mentally disturbed man with a history of violence. At first, she wanted to find this man to kill him with her bare hands, to make him suffer what her dear Susie must have suffered.
The anger threatened to consume her life until one day Marietta realized that the anger she harbored against the murderer was not killing him, as she might have wished, but it was destroying her! This revelation started her on the road to forgiveness. And without the murderer apologizing or even realizing fully what he had done, Marietta forgave him. Like God, Marietta forgave a man who didn’t even understand that he had sinned against her.
Does forgiveness condone evil?
But, you ask, If we forgive, aren’t we approving of the wrong done to us? Let’s answer that question with another one: Did God approve of our sin when He forgave us? Far from approving of our sin, which had distanced us from Him, God recognized sin for what it was: the violation of the law of Love. He allowed Himself to feel the effects of this betrayal deep within His being, the pain of finding Himself alienated from His children. In this state of recognizing the evil done, God chose to forgive us. Instead of paying us in kind, He gave us love for our hatred, integrity for our dishonesty, generosity for our selfishness.
Sylvia understood the demands of this humility that is required of those who would forgive when she married Paul. Paul and his younger brother, Peter, lost their father when they were young boys and, consequently, Paul became a father figure to Peter. If Peter needed clothes for school, Paul would buy them for him; if he needed anything, Paul would work extra hours to make sure his brother had all he needed.
When Paul and Sylvia married and began their pastoral ministry, Peter felt that she had robbed him of both his brother and “father.” From then on, Peter found every way possible to make Sylvia’s life miserable Wherever they went, Peter followed, spreading rumors about Sylvia. For a long time, Sylvia bore patiently with her brother-in-law, until she could stand it no longer. Her husband, finding himself in the unenviable position of trying to mediate between his wife and his brother, finally gave in to Sylvia’s request that the matter be brought before the church board.
But the night before the board meeting, Sylvia had a dream in which she heard a voice saying, “Forgive him! Forgive him!” Unable to fall asleep again, she spent the night in prayer. The next day at the meeting, Sylvia was asked to explain why she had brought a complaint against Peter. She stood up and said, “I have no complaints against Peter. I now love him like a brother and I forgive him.” She sat down and a shocked silence fell over the meeting. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Peter with his head bowed and the tears flowing. When Peter regained his composure, he stood up and confessed everything and explained why he had wanted to do Sylvia harm. When he finished, the two embraced, and today Sylvia reports that Peter is her fiercest defender!
Like the mother in The Christmas Quilt, Sylvia did not wait until Peter recognized his sin. Had she waited, she might never have obtained what she received by forgiving him first. That is the eternal lesson of Christmas: God in His love sent His only begotten Son to set our salvation in motion, so that we might repent. He humbled Himself to forgive those who didn’t realize the damage they had done; those who knowingly and willfully sinned; those who hid their sinful lives behind a fašade of false sanctity.
Jesus came to demonstrate the forgiveness that God had already given us as a gift. He came to call us to a life of forgiveness toward one another. For us, the act of forgiveness is an act of gratitude for that which has so generously been given us and which continues to be given to us daily. This is a Christmas gift that can last all year— and even an entire lifetime!
Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson is chair of the Department of Modern Languages at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.