an (un)natural Christmas act

Ten years and one day ago, I penned the edited post below. For some reason, Christmastime makes us think of what is virtuous, what is good. Some of what is good feels a little unnatural…


There’s something about this time of year that makes us all think a little more about virtues… like gratitude and charity, peace and love, faith and goodwill toward men. But there’s one virtue to me, that trumps all others, even though I rarely see it mentioned on any sparkling Christmas, Hanukkah, or even Kwanzaa card.

Forgiveness. Grace and forgiveness.

This is not a one-blog discussion [as we’ve acknowledged these past ten years]. Not everyone believes in grace and forgiveness, and even those of us who do, have trouble offering such both liberally and consistently. I’ve seen Christians and non-Christians extend it. I’ve seen Christians and non-Christians withhold it – unfortunately but often understandably, usually in the name of self-protection. My guess is that old song about “knowing we are Christians by our love” might serve us better if people knew “we were Christians by our grace.” Offering grace – and not in reference to any pre-meal activity – is a seemingly unnatural act.

Today let me simply borrow from one of my favorite books, What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey. I read it several years ago, and it changed the way I think. Here is Yancey’s insight as to the challenge of extending forgiveness:

“I and the public know

What all school children learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

W.H. Auden, who wrote those lines, understood that the law of nature admits no forgiveness. Do squirrels forgive cats for chasing them up trees or dolphins forgive sharks for eating their playmates? It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, not dog-forgive-dog. As for the human species, our major institutions – financial, political, even athletic – run on the same unrelenting principle. An umpire never announces, ‘You were really out, but because of your exemplary spirit I’ll call you safe.’ Or what nation responds to its belligerent neighbors with the proclamation, ‘You are right, we violated your borders. Will you please forgive us?’

The very taste of forgiveness seems somehow wrong. Even when we have committed a wrong, we want to earn our way back into the injured party’s good graces. We prefer to crawl on our knees, to wallow, to do penance, to kill a lamb – and religion often obliges us. When the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV decided to seek the pardon of Pope Gregory VII in 1077, he stood barefoot for three days in the snow outside the papal quarters in Italy. Probably, Henry went away with a self-satisfied feeling, wearing frostbite scars as the stigmata of forgiveness.

‘Despite a hundred sermons on forgiveness, we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven. Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be,’ writes Elizabeth O’Connor. We nurse sores, go to elaborate lengths to rationalize our behavior, perpetuate family feuds, punish ourselves, punish others – all to avoid this most unnatural act.”

This is tough. At a time of year when a focus on virtues is both apparent and appropriate, have we taken time to ask ourselves: 

Is there anyone out there I need to forgive? 

Are there any situations in which I have justified withholding forgiveness? 

And is there anything for which I am punishing myself?

Today’s conversation is merely a beginning point in the dialogue. One blog [nor ten years of blogs] will not change the world nor those financial, political, even athletic institutions. Our hearts, however, can be changed… through the blessing that comes via a powerful, unnatural act.