Christmastime can be summed up in one word, peace (Luke 2). The multitude of Heavenly Angels announced the birth of Jesus, proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.” The word peace is found about 429 times in the Old and New Testaments combined. There are quite a few variations of the word peace in the dictionary. There is the peace that is the absence of war or other hostilities. My personal favorite definition, which is the pinnacle that leads to all forms of peace is: freedom from anxiety, annoyance, or other mental disturbance. So why is it that Christmastime can also be the most stressful, least peaceful time of year? Work and family obligations, parties, financial strain and lack of sleep can make life pretty miserable. Throw in stressful family situations that some people have to deal with during the holidays and many just want to bury themselves under their blankets until it’s over.
It’s a paradox that the very time of year that brings peace, can bring anxiety for many people. There is a certain closeness this time of year to the Divinity who came to save us from anything harmful. This kind of closeness leads us to an awareness of a personal love and care. It can also be a giant spotlight for every imperfection or sin that we have ever committed. Some hide themselves in legalism, thinking that if they dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’, they will become worthy of the love and peace that is offered. Or perhaps some think they are doing everything mostly perfect. Others think that they do not deserve peace because of the harm they have caused others. In all of these cases, they miss the message of Christmas, not to mention commit the sin of pride which is arguably worse than any other sin, and the one sin that doomed us all (Adam and Eve). Pride causes us to look down and only see ourselves. Our God asks us to look up and see the star of hope.
Jesus came for sinners (Mark 2:17). This means that the worst sinner who is sorry, is worthy of the most mercy or love from God. We see this time and time again in the Gospel story, yet many of us get it wrong by pushing perfection. Should we be sorry for not being perfect? That is one option. It is more realistic though, to just realize that no one is perfect and get on with it. Dwelling on past mistakes is a waste of time and robs of any good that we can still do. It also steals any happiness the future may hold.
There was once a man, an atheist, who unintentionally ended up working on a slave ship. Given the choice between being beaten and abused or beating and abusing the slaves, he chose the later. After a short time, he was guilty of beating, raping and killing slaves. He even fed an injured slave to sharks. One day, when his own life was threatened, he cried out to God with all his might, “God if you’re real, save me!” Against all odds, the man was saved. As soon as he could, he confessed his sins and began to follow The Lord. He didn’t change over night. In fact, it took some years for him to turn his life around. Once his life was free from corruption and serious sins against others, the man was still haunted by dreams and images of what he did in his past. Driven to make the best of the remaining time he was given, he wrote down his honest and self-incriminating account of his life as a slave trader. This document was exactly what the British parliament needed to vote to end the slave trade in Britain, a victory that was witnessed by the former slave trader just before he died. This man’s name was John Newton, the author of the song, AMAZING GRACE. Newton was able to climb out of the evil pit of his life and do something “amazing” because he understood that “grace will lead us home.”
The keys to open us up to the ingredients needed for peace are love and acceptance of who we are and who God is. Once we reject self-pity or loathing for wrongs we have done, legalism to try to make up for the wrongs we’ve done, or thinking we haven’t done any wrong at all, we open ourselves up to the love that can transform us into a life of peace. God frees us from our past. What better way to open us up to this love than a little baby in a manger at Christmastime? The baby who is heralded by Heavenly Angels proclaiming peace.
Dissipation has become a common way to cope with anything that may ail us. We have become very good at keeping ourselves distracted from difficult memories, situations or challenging relationships. Many of us sink ourselves into our duties at home, our work or activism. I’m not even entirely sure it is a bad idea. Some situations really are too painful to face sometimes. I’m as guilty as anyone else. It took me nine years to visit the grave of my unborn child. It amazes me how much we can stuff and file into the back of our minds, while managing to live what seems to be a normal life. Sure, we can go on. The question is, how much do we lose when we close ourselves off and only try to survive and get by, instead of embracing the very love that is able to help us heal?
A dear friend reached out to a few close friends to pray for the love of his life, his wife, who has been battling cancer for decades. My first reaction was to be angry at the injustice of cancer. I think it is safe to say that most of us have been affected in some way by the hideous nature of cancer. I completely hit a wall. When I’m boxed in, I try to take inventory. I ask myself what is good about the present situation and what has been gained by the struggles faced. When I look at things this way, I begin to feel freedom instead of the imprisonment of a box.
Witnessing the love, courage, grace, dignity and strength of the individual suffering, I am in awe. Combine that with the way a dear one’s presence has, and continues to touch so many lives, my eyes are opened to the powerful and victorious nature of real love. Love is stronger than any other force. Real love is the appreciation of a person for who they are. Of course we need people. We desire to connect on a deep level with others. However, the greatest love is a detached gratitude for what a person holds inside of them. Like a flower with a fragrance, their beauty has nothing to do with us.
This month it has been 21 years this since my brother, Tommy, passed away. There are not enough Fourth of July Fireworks or parties to make me forget. Unfortunately it is not possible to remember the person and forget the pain of their loss. It takes courage to hold on to what was special and beautiful about those we have lost along the way. If we cannot find this courage, what is the point of life? The only thing we can take with us to the next life is how we love. Isn’t it logical then that we should love as much and as often as we are given the privilege to? It is up to those of us left behind to remember and honor that love. In order to do that, we must continue to love on their behalf, and for our own fulfillment, even if it is with an aching heart.
When it comes to loving anyone, the true magic happens when we love them for their own good, not ours. There is joy, even in sorrow, when we focus on the greatness of the ones we love, or have loved, and not on the cost of loving them. Anthony De Mello sums it up in his book, THE WAY TO LOVE, “When you are in love you find yourself looking at everyone with new eyes; you become generous, forgiving, kindhearted, where before you might have been hard and mean.” The ability to keep an open heart in spite of tragedy and pain is the greatest challenge of life, but I cannot imagine a better way to live.
The other day I was having a usual deep philosophical discussion with my daughter, Maddie. I talked to her about how a person can make up for past mistakes. The analogy I gave was one I heard awhile ago. If you walk past a fence and knock it down, you have to go back and repair or replace the fence. We discussed intent. That’s an important question. There is more culpability if you knock the fence down on purpose. However, imagine that you walked by with a stick and didn’t know you were knocking down the fence. It was an accident. I explained that the fence is still broken because of your action so you have to go back and fix it. She said something incredibly insightful. Maddie said, “It depends what the fence owner thinks. Maybe he would understand it was just a mistake and it’s okay. You don’t have to go back and fix it. He’d take care of it.” She makes a great point. God is a fence owner who understands and He keeps fixing our mistakes if we ask Him to.
Most people agree that holding on to our past mistakes or grudges against others who have hurt us, will leave us standing in the same spot or going backwards. So why is it so hard for us to make the choice to move on? Many times it is the simple fact that we are unwilling to forgive ourselves and/or others. I’ve heard people say that forgiving others is important because it benefits the forgivers by offering a release, making them feel better. This is favorable for their own health and other personal relationships. I believe this to be true, however it lacks motivation. If we were to act on what makes us feel better, than we would probably be more likely to hold on to that anger. Anger feels good because it feels like justice. Several years back I had dinner with the Dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Gladys Sweeney. In her scholarly fashion she stated, “Mercy is the ultimate form of justice, but if we do not know love, we cannot know this.” If God forgives us and loves us, then are we not called to forgive and love others in just the same manner?
Making amends for the harm we have caused others is another step in finding freedom from the bondage of the past. If it is possible to make it up to the person you have harmed, try to do that. There is no way to go back and change the past, but we have right now and hopefully time in the future to make up for our transgressions. Over time, people do heal by our love and affirmative actions. If it is not possible to do good for someone you have wronged, then do good for others. If you stole or cheated someone, give back what you have taken. If you are unable to give restitution directly to that person, make a donation to a charity. There are many places who will gladly accept donations. For example, there are many organizations who help more than 11 million Syrian refugees, many of them children. Organizations like Catholic Relief Services have helped over 1.25 million war affected Syrians by providing food, basic supplies, shelter and clear information about legal options for seeking asylum and international protection. You may also find a local organization to donate, such as Give To Others. The point is to be proactive to build up and restore others to make up for causing damage or being destructive, whether it was accidental or deliberate. Making the world a better place in some way can help us make peace with ourselves by knowing we contributed to others growth and well being.
Everyone makes mistakes. Our imperfections make us human. Forgiving ourselves makes us kinder toward others. If we make the decision to forgive, we begin to heal. We will also see ourselves with more clarity. If we examine why we committed our offenses, most of the time we will see that we acted out of some type of need. The greatest human need is to be loved. Many mistakes are made because we need love and do not know how to get it. Knowing our needs helps us to avoid future mistakes and find healthier ways of meeting our needs. Whatever haunts you, face it, do your best to make amends. Then bury it. For good.