The First Sunday of Advent readings might strike you as somewhat odd. They don’t seem very…well, in the Christmas spirit. Perhaps it helps to consider where Advent falls on the liturgical calendar for the Church. It is immediately preceded by the Solemnity of Christ the King and followed by the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas). Advent lies between the celebration of the Seconding Coming of Christ at the end of time and the commemoration of the First Coming of Christ at Christmas. The theme of readings and teachings during Advent is often to prepare for the Second Coming at the end of time, while also commemorating the First Coming of Christ at Christmas. With the view of directing the thoughts of Christians to the first coming of Jesus Christ as Savior, and to his second coming as Judge, special readings are prescribed for each of the four Sundays in Advent.
On this first Sunday in Advent we have a sense of that in our second reading, Romans 13:11-14. “Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” The tone of this writing of St. Paul carries a caution that the world is about to change, and we are going to be held accountable to live in the light of Christ and throw off the works of darkness. The reference to light can easily be understood to point to the Nativity of Christ. The gospel for Christmas day includes, with reference to Jesus: “this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
The work of darkness reference is not too hard to figure out – a life lived in sin. In fact, the first Advent reading from St. Paul goes on to list some possibilities: “drunkenness… promiscuity and lust…rivalry and jealousy…desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14). St. Paul is not simply talking about simple instances of such sins but is really pointing to the habits and actions that point to character and a life not well lived. I think that most people will look at that list and think “not me!” And perhaps rightly so. But I would offer one more to the list: forgiveness. Are we people that live a life grounded in forgiveness?
If you pause for a moment it is not too hard to dip into our own memories and experience to recall a time when we had been wronged and we were just not able/willing to forgive, or the forgiveness was so shallow that it did not take root and soon arose again into daily life. It is not too hard to imagine those moments in our lives as moments of darkness with not a whole lot of light able to penetrate and shine in. Poetically it is as though those times are as being imprisoned by hurts and our lack of forgiveness. We are just unable to set down the burden of all that marks those days and nights. Meanwhile, the other person is probably not giving the matter a second thought, just moving through life unburdened, free.
Forgiveness is your key to freedom. St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote that freedom when thought of as simply “choice” is an impoverished sense of freedom; to be truly free is to be unburdened. Make forgiveness a Christmas present to yourself.
Why is it hard to forgive? We have minimized the hurt: “It did not bother me.” “I have forgotten all about that.” “I forgave him years ago.” “It’s okay, that happens in all families.” We do not want to: “Not until they feel my pain.” “Not until they apologize.” “If I forgive, I will keep getting hurt.” “I will forgive but I will not forget.” We do not know we need to: We remember the injustice done to us but not our response. The person we need to forgive is ourselves. We do not believe: We do not realize the power we have in the name of Jesus. The wound is so deep it seems impossible, but nothing is impossible in Christ.
You might ask what forgiveness is? Forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling. We decide to forgive. Forgiveness is choosing to love over revenge. Forgiveness is an expression of the freedom God has given us. Forgiveness means giving up your right to hold on to an offense. Forgiveness does not mean we excuse or condone the offense, but rather let go of the anger and hurt that torments us. Forgiveness changes our hearts, even if it does not change the person who hurt us. Forgiveness turns injury into compassion.
You might ask why should I forgive? Here is a short list of reasons: (1) because you have been forgiven. (2) Forgiveness is the very essence of the Father’s love. (3) Forgiveness releases us from the chains of the past. (4) Forgiveness releases us from inner turmoil. (5) Forgiveness releases us to take our life back. (6) Forgiveness brings peace and overwhelming joy, the joy of knowing that God will forgive me just as I forgive.
What “Christmas gift” comes along with this life of forgiveness? Lower blood pressure, restful night, sweet dreams, peace, no longer being a victim, uninterrupted prayer, a new experience of God’s love… and so much more. Your gift is waiting right there under the tree, the cross of Christ. Go ahead, open your gift. ‘Tis always the season.