Part two of a four-part Advent series on forgiveness.
You can count on TV advertisers every year to display during the holiday season images of perfect family harmony before your very eyes.
The thinly veiled suggestion in these commercials is that your household’s harmony will escalate dramatically if you give whatever they are selling to someone near and dear to you on Christmas.
These commercials also hope to connect with the common wish for a period of closeness and love at home. Christmas, after all, is a day people not only look forward to, but hope to remember happily months later.
But all indications are that perfectly harmonious homes are relatively few. Actually, more than a few household outbursts can be chalked up to the stresses and costs of the holiday season itself, as well as the different expectations family members have of the period before and leading up to Christmas.
In many cases, the preceding months also have known their share of angry words at home, failed efforts to communicate and cold shoulders. Occasions when family members were impatient with each other or took little interest in each other’s concerns may lurk in the holiday season’s background.
Often enough, therefore, Christmas arrives bearing an invitation for forgiveness at home.
Christmas encourages the revitalization of marriage bonds and bonds with children, relatives, friends and others. If people have hurt each other in the course of the year, that could make Christmas a day of forgiveness.
Precisely because he became one of us, because he is an incarnate Lord, Christ at Christmas boldly asserts the dignity and the worth of all who are human — sometimes very, very human.
Christmas, then, offers a unique invitation to remember all that is good in others we love but perhaps do not like at this moment quite as much as we might.
This isn’t always easy, of course.
Pope Francis talked about the nuts and bolts of family life and marriage in a late October 2013 speech to participants in a Year of Faith pilgrimage of families to Rome. He underscored the need in family life to forgive and to say sorry.
“We all make mistakes, and on occasion someone gets offended in the marriage, in the family. And sometimes, I say, plates are smashed, harsh words are spoken,” Pope Francis said.
He told pilgrimage participants that “it is important to have the courage to ask for forgiveness when we are at fault in the family.” For, “sometimes we do things that are not good and that harm others.”
“Please forgive me” are words family members need to hear from each other, Pope Francis said. “Then you start over.”
Start over? Yes, one great thing about forgiveness is that it allows people to start over, in big and little ways to make a new beginning in a relationship.
Forgiveness does not erase past hurts or even present difficulties. Neither is forgiveness a form of permission for others to harm us again or recklessly create problems. Still, when we find a way to forgive, we determine that the past need not control our relationship now.
A 20th-century Welsh poet named Waldo Williams spoke briefly about forgiveness in a poem titled “What Is Man?” He wrote:
“What is it to forgive? To find a way through the thorns to stand alongside our old enemy.”
Perhaps while you never considered any family member or friend an enemy, you know what needing to “find a way through the thorns” is all about.
Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, who retired in 2012, mentioned the poem in a 2010 speech. He was speaking of people who basically are strangers to each other, though they should be friends.
In the closest of relationships people may gradually drift apart, becoming like strangers. For them, choosing to start again could mean reversing the habit of turning away from each other and instead turning toward each other.
According to many experts, this requires listening to each other and respecting — never simply dismissing — each other’s points of view.
It requires surrendering a win-lose approach to arguments, replacing that with a determination to work constructively together to resolve conflicts. It can mean realizing that people who love each other do not have to be identical in all points of view.
It can mean realizing, too, that “getting even” or seeking revenge is a step backward, not forward, in a relationship.
People “start again” in relationships by placing a weightier accent on what they appreciate and love in each other than on what they find unsettling.
I said that one great thing about forgiveness is how it allows people to start over and remove the walls that divide them. Another great thing is that forgiveness and reconciliation are Christ-like.
Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans once said that revenge today is “easier and more popular than forgiveness.” An acceptance of revenge is among the signs of the times, he suggested, while to forgive is countercultural.
Nonetheless, what he considered important was to more fully live the life of Jesus, who is the forgiver.