She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:21

One of life’s puzzling mysteries – on par with how Santa makes it to every house in the world in a single night – is the claim that Jesus came to save us from our sins. It is biblical and oft repeated. An angelic message in the first chapter of Matthew’s Christmas story proclaims: “…for he will save his people from their sins.” I have heard it in church since childhood. I have repeated it countless times without giving it a second thought. It’s like an old wife’s tale handed down from generation to generation that everyone accepts without questioning its validity or understanding its implications. Even old wife’s tales are rooted in truth, however. Still, how can Jesus’ life of 2000+ years ago forgive my sins, including those I have yet to commit? It is simply unfathomable.

Such forgiveness is unfathomable, that is, in the context of our typical understanding of what sin is and what forgiveness entails. Both terms are central to Christianity and, in my opinion, poorly understood. To better understand sin and forgiveness it can be helpful to go back to the creation story in Genesis when the first humans, Adam and Eve, leave the garden of Eden. In this allegorical story, Eden is paradise. All human needs are met there, and Adam and Eve have direct access to and communion with God. Even so, Adam and Eve know they are less than and separate from God in the sense that God is God and they are not. They eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God warned them not to eat, and their eyes are opened. “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us (note the plural reference to God as us), knowing good and evil; and now he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”[1]

The story describes a journey, a journey we all take individually and collectively. The initial stage is one of being with, but separate from God (the garden of Eden). Mankind is a creation of God but without a unifying presence with God. In the next stage, Adam and Eve desire to become more like God by having their eyes opened via the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This earthly stage of our existence is where we learn about good and evil by becoming and living with good and evil. The last stage bridges the separation from God by eating of the tree of life so we once again live forever in communion with God, but this time united as one with God.

For Adam and Eve to begin their journey into the knowledge of good and evil, which I suggest is life on earth, God sends them forth from the garden of Eden.[2] The wording, “sending them forth,” is strongly indicative of a maturing journey, a growth process, much more than a punishment. During the earthly phase of our lives we do not have direct access to God, at least not in the way we have direct access to each other. God seems distant and apart from us. We are sent on a journey that, ultimately, brings us back to where we began, although we will have been changed. We will have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and of the tree of life and will live forever in oneness with God, along with all other created beings.

The original sin, as with sin itself, is not an offense against God as much as a sending off on a journey, not unlike the involuntary journey of adolescence. Sin is not the “bad” things we do, but the intentional and necessary separation from the one who sent us on the journey in the first place. And it fuels our desire to return home. Sin is separation, or at least the sense of separation. It is not evil; it is what is required to attain the knowledge of good and evil we need to grow into the image of God from which we were created. We cannot know light without dark, right without wrong, or love without apathy. This is life on earth – a realm of seeming opposites we learn are inseparable parts of a single spectrum of reality.

And this is how Jesus saves us from our sin – that God does not abandon us on our often-painful and seemingly solitary journey into the knowledge of good and evil. Rather, God joins us on the journey. And the knowledge and lived experience of God’s presence saves us from the sense of separation from our Divine source. That is our forgiveness – the elimination of that sense of separation – and it begins by seemingly losing what in truth we can never lose, God’s presence. Emmanuel, God with us, came to build a visibly forgiving and uniting bridge, eliminating our sense of separation.

[1] Genesis 3:22a

[2] Genesis 3:23

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