ere it is, already the middle of December and the celebration of Christmas is just a little closer than we might be prepared for. Advent, as a season of preparation, is four weeks long, but the demands on our time seem to require six weeks for scheduling. With social obligations in the community, with our coworkers and with our friends and family, we have a difficult time saying ‘no’ to anything. During the holidays, it seems especially rude to turn down any invitation and we commit ourselves again and again. It comes as no surprise that the holiday season is hectic, and, for many of us, is not a particularly joyous time.
We try to alleviate that sense of being overwhelmed by advance planning. Each year, we promise ourselves that we will begin our shopping early enough to ensure that the season does not get away from us and that we will not drive ourselves and those around us crazy with a frenzy of activity in the final days before Christmas. We may actually finish most things, and when our social obligations and shopping are just about done, we likely are left with a few gifts to find at the last minute — usually the toughest ones. One of our temptations is to simply find something to fill the gap, a half-hearted attempt just to fulfill the obligation, but it still leaves us unsatisfied — particularly if the person once was, is or should be close to us. There is something inherently human about the giving of gifts. In the exchange of gifts we sometimes fall into trouble — we sometimes try to outdo one another in generosity; or we try to ensure that others will owe us a debt of gratitude for whatever gift we may be giving; or we have financially balanced out what we have given for what we expect to receive. The spirit of gift-giving intends that we might actually give something to another that is heartfelt and thoughtful; and that we might receive with humility and gratitude whatever is offered to us in the same spirit.
The question of the "perfect" gift remains elusive, especially for those who are close to us. In searching for the perfect gift for someone else, we consider all different kinds of aspects of the individual: their likes and dislikes; careers, activities, family members and hobbies; but to truly find something meaningful, it might be helpful to ask ourselves what might be the gift that we would most like to receive. As I write this reflection, I am thinking about the universal kind of gift that is always the perfect size, is always appropriate, is never in questionable taste and is always the right color. It is seldom refused, is costly and of great value.
It is forgiveness.
Sometimes, the forgiveness is truly for the good of another — to pardon others for their faults and failures, for the pain they may have inflicted on us or our loved ones, to be able to speak honestly and clearly to each other, and perhaps, over time, to risk loving them. This kind of forgiveness does not forget the past, nor does it pretend that everything is wonderful; it acknowledges pain and scars but refuses to keep the heart and soul imprisoned in anger and resentment. It is costly — the most costly kind of gift that one can give, and it is precious. It can be refused, but the one who offers this gift of forgiveness finds freedom.
This is a part of the Kingdom’s freedom that Jesus spoke about to his disciples. It is difficult and demanding, especially when we realize that we cannot bind the one forgiven to change. Forgiveness invites but cannot coerce; it opens doorways but does not demand entrance. Forgiveness can only be a gift, reflecting not only our love, but the love of a God who calls us to life and who offers to the world the gifts of mercy and redemption.
Sometimes forgiveness is a gift that we must accept as well. When offered to us by another, it can challenge us to live more fully, more graciously, more generously and more faithfully. Accepting forgiveness sometimes reveals far more about us than we are necessarily comfortable with. It can be costly to receive it, for it demands that we set aside our own pride and our own self-righteousness. It, too, can be refused, but if refused, it can lead to resentment of the one who offers it. But when accepted, it can help us to live the example of Christ with humility and dignity, and will allow us to rebuild friendships and relationships that have been damaged.
Forgiveness can also be a gift that we give to ourselves so that we are able to walk with our heads held high, embracing the gift of peace that Christ offers, welcoming and engaging others and truly becoming a participant in the human family. Sometimes we must forgive ourselves for the frenzy we allow into our lives so that we do not have to deal with the insecurities and anxieties we feel, sometimes it is for the fearfulness of disappointing others, sometimes it is the unrealistic expectation of living up to someone else’s demands, sometimes it is for trying to ensure that others will like us and accept us, and sometimes it is about our failure to maintain and build relationships with others. There are many reasons to accept that gift, but first we have to recognize that it is offered — not only by ourselves and by others, but most deeply and profoundly, by God.
Forgiveness and mercy are the perfect gifts for anyone and everyone, and help us to be profoundly human. They are gifts that reflect the presence of God, and they never fail to affect the souls of those who receive them and those who give them. They are part of every prayer and part of every heart’s deepest longing. They are also an essential part of preparing ourselves to celebrate Christ’s coming and to receive the gift of God with open arms. When we celebrate Christ’s coming, it marks the season of incarnation, the enfleshment of God’s love and desire for us. He comes as a child, to remind us that just as easily as he is cradled and cared for, so too are we. Christ comes, offering forgiveness, mercy and the Kingdom.
The Rev. Fr. Tim Hays is pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church, 2098 E. Alder St. Contact him at 509-525-8163. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.