A SHEPHERD SPEAKS

Bishop Fred Henry

December 23, 2013

A recurring theme of the feasts, stories and songs of Christmas is reconciliation – vertical and horizontal reconciliation. We experience being forgiven by God and others. We are also empowered to forgive others, ourselves, and even God. The alienated and the estranged are united.

No one developed this theme more thoroughly than Charles Dickens, who turned every lonely, "Bah, humbug!" into a communitarian "God bless us, everyone."

"Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment which abound at this season of the year? A Christmas family party? We know nothing in nature more delightful.

"There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers; father and son, or brother and sister, who have met and passed with averted gaze, or a look of cold recognition, for months before, proffer and return the cordial embrace, and bury their past animosities in their present happiness.

"Kindly hearts that have yearned toward each other but have been withheld by false notions of pride and self-dignity, are again reunited, and all is kindness and benevolence. Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through and that the prejudices and passions which deform our better nature were never called into action among those to whom they should ever be strangers."

Christmas is that blessed time when disputes are set aside and friendships restored.

Christmas is that blessed time when disputes are set aside and friendships restored.

In this quote from A Christmas Carol, Dickens praises Christmas for overcoming what "deforms our better nature" and brings us together. Dickens does not explore exactly what the "magic in the very name of Christmas" is that performs this feat.

BE NOT AFRAID

But we know it starts with God's free initiative and gift – "Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manager" (Luke 2.10-12).

Dickens focused on the family, but the Christmas call to relationship goes beyond family. Strangers are welcomed, the poor are fed, every child has a toy. Political leaders plead for peace.

In the Slavonic churches, at the end of Christmas Mass, the people kiss one another on both cheeks and say, "Christ is born." The response is "Truly he is born," and the kisses are repeated.

This goes on until everyone in the church has been kissed by everyone else. This may take a little time, but there is no doubt in people's mind that this is the appropriate action to celebrate Christmas.

LIFE IS GOD'S GIFT

Life is a wonderful gift from God. At times, however, life can seem anything but wonderful. Like death and taxes, suffering is inevitable; it's simply part of the human condition.

We fallen human beings hurt one another, and we hurt ourselves. Some more, some less, but we all do. It's for good reason that an ancient Catholic prayer, the Salve Regina, describes our journey through this world as through a "valley of tears."

Christmas calls us to add love to this tear-stained world, especially in those places where love seems most absent. We are to be the "light of the world" in the midst of its darkness. We all want this world to be a more loving place, but sometimes it's up to us to make it so. As St. John of the Cross taught, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."

LONG LIST TO FORGIVE

Such love involves forgiveness. The truth is we all have someone to forgive: from the rude driver who cut us off in traffic to the spouse who abandoned us. There's the parent who neglected us or always put us down; the friends who vanished when we needed them most; the boss who took credit for our idea; the bully who made our school years miserable; the stern religious leader who snapped at us when we were vulnerable; the contractor who took our money but never finished the job; the teacher who shamed us before our classmates; the back-stabbing co-worker; the lover who used us; the lying or corrupt politician; the greedy business executive whose decisions impacted our livelihood or our environment; the ungrateful child who never calls; the racist or sexist bigot; the hypercritical mother-in-law; a violent criminal; a war-time enemy.

Needless to say, this is only a suggestive and incomplete list.

Without exception, we've all been hurt by others; without exception, Christmas faith invites us to forgive those who hurt us. For whatever they've done. For however many times they've done it. Even if they refuse to apologize or admit that they did anything wrong. Even if we'll never see them again, but especially if we will.

Forgiveness is a gesture of love we offer to God's glory, as a blessing to others, and for the sake of our own health, happiness, and holiness.

GIFT OF FORGIVENESS

Forgiveness isn't deserved. It's a free gift; others don't have to earn it. Consider the words on a wall of Mother Teresa's Calcutta home for children:

"People are unreasonable, illogical, self-centred . . . love them anyway.

"If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives . . . do good anyway.

"If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies . . . be successful anyway.

"The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow . . . do good anyway.

"Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable . . . be honest and frank anyway.

"People love underdogs but follow only top dogs . . . follow some underdog anyway.

"What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight . . . build anyway.

"People really need help but may attack you if you try to help . . . help people anyway.

"If you give the world the best you have, you may get kicked in the teeth . . . but give the world the best you have . . . Anyway."

"You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway!"

"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (John 3.16).