'An open heart and a deep level of forgiveness'
Posted: Sat, 02 Jan 2021 08:06
In his reflection for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB reflects on the part the incarnation plays in our everyday lives and our relationships. Gospel: John 1: 1-18
Today, once again, we are reminded of those exciting words in the deep poetry of the evangelist, John. The Prologue, that we last heard on Christmas Day morning, reflects the opening chapter of the book of Genesis. Read again the first creation myth ( Gen 1: 1-2, 4) and you will see that God only had to SPEAK and it came into being—the WORD of God does exactly what it says and brings light and order to a chaotic world. In our Gospel today, we are reminded of the power of God, speaking to us as his 'Word became flesh and LIVED among us.'
As we distance ourselves from the coziness of the ideal Christmas celebration, we have to see beyond the crib and the fairy lights. Incarnation is a challenge to each of us: God is born into poverty; God quickly identifies with refugees and victims of great violence; God, in the birth of Jesus, becomes fully human. Both John and Genesis are talking of 'new beginnings', which is where we find ourselves now, as we look out over 2021: all of us have a chance to make a new beginning.
The reality of being human is that we all make mistakes; if we wilfully continue to make that same 'mistake' then we are not learning, nor do we move forward. On a personal level, I know that 2020 saw me make mistakes; I can blame everything from COVID-19 to 'the dog ate my homework', but I have to own my mistakes. I have to learn from my mistakes. I have to ask genuine forgiveness from those I have damaged and hurt. Only then can I hope to move on and play my part in creating the new year of 2021.
Incarnation is important because it made God's love for us real and tangible. Holy love is like human love, in that it has to be embodied in order to be experienced. It is one thing to believe in "romantic love," in two people finding their heart's desire in each other, candlelight dinners, moonlight walks, eternal bliss. It is quite another thing for two people to live together, to struggle to work out their differences, to accept one another's flaws and shortcomings, to live face-to-face in a living, breathing, less than ideal but oh-so-realistic relationship. So it is with us and our loving relationship with God—God became flesh and lived among us, because God was not willing to be a far-off, spiritual ideal. God knew that for the divine-human relationship to be real, it had to be fleshed out. That "fleshing out" continues in the life of the church, the "body of Christ", as we embody our faith and love for God in our efforts to live lives of love with one another and the world. Thus, the need for an open heart and a deep level of forgiveness in all our relationships.
Forgiveness does not excuse the other for their hurtful behaviour; forgiveness is not a free pass for us to do exactly what we want in our desire to get our selfish way. Forgiveness is an attitude of mind that we need to open up to in this year; without real forgiveness in our lives, we actually cannot move forward, as we get stuck in 2020, 2007, 1974—or any time in our lives when we have refused to forgive.
President Nelson Mandela of South Africa is my hero in how you should forgive. Imprisoned by an apartheid fascist government for working for equal rights, he rose, through a campaign of peace, to become the first black president of the Republic. He once took his security detail out for lunch, when he noticed a man sitting on his own. He invited the man to come over to his table, and his security guards noticed that the man was shaking violently and hardly looked up or joined in the conversation, just nervously ate his food. When he finished the meal, he muttered his thanks and quickly left the restaurant. The guards thought the poor man was nervous in the presence of his president, but Mandela revealed the truth. The man was the former governor of Robben Island, who had treated all the prisoners, and especially Mandela, with utter contempt and cruelty. He certainly could be charged under international law for the abuse of prisoners in his care. The extent of his abuse horrified even these hardened guards. Why did the President invite this wicked man to eat with him? Why not have him arrested for crimes against humanity? Mandela's answer was plain and simple: if I cannot forgive, then I cannot move on—I am still in prison!
The challenge of the gospel is to be living and breathing icons of that gift of true forgiveness, especially in this coming year. The Benedictine theologian, Joan Chittister, puts it far better than I could:
Perhaps forgiveness is the last thing mentioned in the Creed because it is the last thing learned in life. Perhaps none of us can understand the forgiveness of God until we ourselves have learned to forgive.
From 'In Search of Belief', Joan Chittister, 1999 (revised edition 2006)