Message: To meet the forgiving God requires "forgiving" God.
Merry Christmas! Don't be afraid to say it: Merry Christmas!
You probably heard about the guy who is leaving extravagant tips: a thousand, five, even ten thousand dollars! Tips for Jesus, he calls them. Any of us would love to get a such an unexpected gift.
But, you know, this Christmas evening I would like to talk about an even greater gift - a gift that Jesus made possible: acceptance, or what we Christians call "forgiveness." God's acceptance of us and our acceptance of each other always includes some degree of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the heart of Christmas. As St. Matthew explains - the name, Jesus, means God saves us from our sins. (1:21) Jesus brings the precious gift of forgiveness.
Before talking about God's forgiveness I would like to address an underlying issue. To receive God's forgiveness - in an odd way - we need to forgive God. Now, I know it seems strange to talk about forgiving God. He is all good and everything he does or allows is for our good. He is not responsible for the sins of angels and men that have caused so much misery. Still, he is the source of the universe we live in - and he sustains it every moment. To receive his life and forgiveness, we have to forgive him - or to put it better, to accept God in an act of faith.
People are sometimes angry at God. Even people who don't believe in him, still blame God. C.S. Lewis tells about how as a young man he had given up belief in God, yet was still angry at him for all the suffering in the world and all the confusion in his own life.* God, however, kept pursuing Lewis, almost like a chess game: "check," and then "checkmate!" C.S. Lewis surrendered to God and began to let go of his anger. He accepted God into his life. In a sense he "forgave God."
We can see something similar in one of our great American poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. During the Christmas of 1863, he was deeply angry. He had lost his wife, Frances, in an accidental fire. And against Longfellow's will, his son Charles had run away to join the Union Army - and that November was severely wounded in a Civil War battle. When Longfellow heard the Christmas bells, he filled with bitterness. The bells speak of peace, he said, but "there is no peace on earth." All the hate in the world mocks the Christmas bells. In that mood Longfellow poured out his anger to God. But then he heard the bells peal more deeply. In a moment of great grace he realized "God is not dead...nor does he sleep." In a sense Longfellow forgave God. He surrendered to him and began to forgive even the Southerners who had crippled his son.
Pope Francis said that faith makes forgiveness possible. Pope Francis became Person of the Year because he models faith, acceptance and forgiveness. He wrote: "Forgiveness is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil." When people say they believe in the "inherent goodness of humanity," I think this is what they mean. Anyone who has read history books or even his own heart knows that we all have plenty of evil in us. Nonetheless, the fact that we persistently and reflexively affirm "basic human goodness" indicates a deeper intuition - what Pope Francis refers to: "a goodness...prior to and more powerful than evil."
Pope Francis does not speak of forgiveness in a way that ignores reality - or that allows an abusive person to keep on hurting others. No, after speaking about the necessity of forgiveness and how faith makes it possible he adds, "forgiveness...demands time and effort, patience and commitment." But faith makes it possible to forgive even the worst person. God forgives our worst sins and calls us to forgive others.
We need to keep this in mind when we question God. It's natural to ask him about all the suffering in the world - especially innocent suffering. In the Bible Job did it more strongly than any of us could. But when Job meets God face to face, Job finds out that God has questions for him. At that point Job falls silent and humbles himself before God. He accepts, he forgives God.
How about you and me? Are we willing to come before the manger with open hearts? To remember that Jesus came to save us from our sins? Maybe you need to forgive some person - someone who makes you angry when you think about him. Take your hurt, your anger and place it at the feet of the Infant Jesus.
Perhaps like C.S. Lewis or Longfellow, you need to forgive God himself. Do not be afraid. If I can put it this way: Sometimes to meet the forgiving God requires "forgiving" God. I am of course using the word "forgive" in an analogous sense. None of us can put ourselves on the same plane as God. By "forgive" I mean accept God's will, to bow before him as Job did.
The greatest gift we can give or receive is forgiveness. This may make some people uncomfortable but I ask you to forgive me. I have been pastor in Monroe going on five years. I love being your spiritual father, but I know I have let people down by things I've done - or failed to do. I ask your forgiveness. No emotional scene necessary - just a Christmas hug. :)
In addition to those I may have hurt, many people in this Valley have told me about being wounded by a priest, a sister or someone in the parish. It keeps them from Mass, from God, which is a terrible shame. On behalf of any person in the Church who may have hurt you, I ask your forgiveness.
Yes, forgiveness is the greatest gift and to receive that gift, in an odd way, a person may even need to "forgive God." To meet the forgiving God requires "forgiving" God. We have to accept God in faith before receiving his acceptance. The example of Longfellow can help us. I would like to conclude this Christmas homily with some verses from his poem (don't worry, I won't sing it).
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, and wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men! And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; "For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men." Amen.
*"I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world." (from his autobiography, Surprised by Joy)
From the archives (Christmas homilies):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.
Fr. Brad's Homilies
Parish Picture Album
KRA's & SMART Goals (updated November 2013)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru