Have you spent some time celebrating lately? Maybe you and your family sang some Christmas carols. Or watched the story of Jesus' birth on television. Or maybe you simply wished someone a "Merry Christmas" - like so many people did when I was in Japan a couple of Christmases ago.
These are all ways to recognize the one whose lifework launched the "Christian era." But there's another way. One that gets right to the heart of what Jesus stood for. And that's ... to forgive someone.
Forgiveness can take many forms. You or I could, for instance, say "I forgive you," but still be roiling and boiling inside every time we think about the person we've forgiven.
On the other hand, we could forgive in a truer sense. We could, as one dictionary explains, simply "cease to indulge or entertain" resentment toward someone. We could stop wanting, in any corner of our heart, to get even with this person. And we could "for-give" (the prefix "for-" sometimes suggests doing something intensely) by becoming so absorbed with intensely giving to this person that we lose all desire to exact retribution.
This idea of intense giving echoes the way Jesus spoke about forgiveness. To him, forgiveness was an act of love that might have to be repeated over and over.
Tradition in Jesus' day dictated that you should pardon a person just three times. So the disciple Peter probably felt rather generous when he offered to forgive "seven times." But Jesus said to him, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:21, 22).
That's virtually unending forgiveness. Yet persistent forgiveness was a way of life for Jesus. It was central to his healing ministry - a ministry that brought "sinners" to repentance. Jesus preached universal salvation to people disenfranchised by traditional theology: the despised tax collector, the prostitute, the social outcast. He defended these people. He healed them. He helped them build new lives. And, in the case of the tax collector Matthew, he gathered him into his inner circle of disciples.
Jesus' supreme act of forgiveness came during his crucifixion, when he prayed for his enemies, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, wrote this about Jesus' climactic moment of forgiveness: "This grand act crowned and still crowns Christianity: it manumits mortals; it translates love; it gives to suffering, inspiration; to patience, experience; to experience, hope; to hope, faith; to faith, understanding; and to understanding, Love triumphant!" ("Miscellaneous Writings," pg. 124).
"Love triumphant" - that's the essence of real forgiveness. It affirms that God's love is present, exactly where it seems most not to be. It sees, even in an enemy, the son or daughter of God.
Real forgiveness requires a kind of prophetic vision. This spiritual vision is at the heart of prayer - and at the heart of the prayer Jesus gave his followers: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). It's a vision of reality. It sees the nobility, beauty, and wholeness that God sees in each of us. And inevitably, this vision "translates" into human living.
That's what happened to evangelist Corrie ten Boom, who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Shortly after the war, she met a man who had been one of the guards at the camp. He had been extraordinarily cruel but had since become a Christian. And humbly, he asked her to forgive him.
At first, she couldn't. Then she prayed. Finally, as she reached for the guard's outstretched hand, she felt a rush of real love.
"I forgive you, brother!" she said, "With all my heart."
"I had never known God's love so intensely, as I did then," she later wrote ("Tramp for the Lord," by Corrie ten Boom, pgs. 54-55).
Intense love, intense giving. These define Christian forgiveness. And they celebrate original Christianity.
You can visit the home page of The First Church of Christ, Scientist: www.tfccs.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society