Mercy and Forgiveness — 3 (to be continued)

After our brief overview of the Old Testament background (post 1) and the different emphases of what might loosely be described as Latin and Greek ideas of sin (post 2), I’d like to continue by looking at some of the post-Resurrection gospels. What I don’t say is as important as what I do, so please don’t expect the argument of a whole book in a single paragraph!

There are some features common to all the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:

  • he appears suddenly;
  • he is the same, but different;
  • he urges his disciples to a deeper level of faith and understanding;
  • he speaks words of mercy and forgiveness (even if he does, at times, remind his hearers that they have been slow to believe);
  • he commissions his disciples to act — announce his Resurrection (Mary Magdalene); preach the Good News (disciples at Emmaus and at the Ascension); follow him (Peter); forgive sins (disciples in the Upper Room).

It is with the words of mercy and forgiveness and the commission to forgive sin that we shall principally be concerned here.

If we look at John 20. 19–23, a sequence of events the Fourth Gospel describes as having taken place in the evening of the first day of the week, the very day of the Resurrection, we note several interesting things. Jesus appears among the disciples without warning, greets them (probably with the word shalom, which means much more than ‘peace’ as we understand it: it is a blessing that confers life, fulfilment, perfection), invites them to look at his wounds, again bids them ‘peace’ and commissions them to share in the same work that he was assigned by the Father. He breathes on them, imparting his spirit, re-creating them as Adam was created when God first breathed the breath of life into his nostrils; and then, importantly, he speaks these words:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

I’ve never been convinced that we should see here an institutionalisation of the sacramental power to forgive sin. What I see first of all is a sharing in the life and mission of Christ given to the nascent Christian community. It is a participation first and foremost in Christ’s healing of us, restoring us to life and wholeness, and it is the whole community, not just part of it, that is entrusted with the mission. That is why Thomas’s absence is so significant. It is not just that he is one of the disciples closest to Jesus, one of the apostles, it is because the Christian community is incomplete without him and Christ’s charge is laid upon all. So what are we to make of that addition: ‘if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’? Does it mean that by sharing in the mission of Christ we also share in the power to give/withold life, or does it mean, rather more shockingly, that we shall be accountable for any failure of others to attain fullness of life? Not so much giving us the power to judge others but laying upon us the responsibility for others? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I think it is one we should ask ourselves because it takes us into the heart of the meaning of mercy and forgiveness and the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection. (cf John 3.16–17)

This is made clearer by considering John 20. 26–30. Again it is evening, the first day of the week, but now we are at the octave day, the point where time and eternity intersect (see, for example, this post) , and Thomas is present. Jesus again appears suddenly and greets the disciples with ‘peace’. Then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds and urges him to believe. Thomas’s corresponding affirmation of faith immediately joins him with the other disciples, and John’s purpose in writing the gospel is fulfilled: ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’

In both gospel pericopes, the wounds of Jesus are significant. They have become channels of grace and healing. We are once more confronted with what the Exsultet dared to call the ‘happy fault’, the ‘necessary sin of Adam’. It is overcome because Christ has destroyed death for ever. Christ’s wounds do not disappear; they are transformed; and there is a lesson for all of us in that. Our humanity is not to be denied but allowed to become what it is meant to be. We are to become ‘sons in the Son.’

Thus I would argue that it is new life, not the repayment of a debt, that Christ bestows upon us and in which we rejoice at Easter. Sin cramps us, makes us sick and distant from the Father and one another; forgiveness frees us, restores us to new vigour and ends the ancient enmities that divide us, one from another. It is indeed the work of mercy, a wholly unmerited gift of God.

In my fourth and final post on the subject (tomorrow?), I hope to tease out a few implications and take into account some of the objections readers have raised.

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5 November for Catholics

I don’t know whether they still burn effigies of the pope in Lewes (I imagine it now constitutes religious hatred and contravenes some law or other), but I know one Catholic who will thoroughly enjoy any bonfire or fireworks on offer tonight. Guy Fawkes is no longer a bogeyman. Historical distance allows us to smile at his misplaced zeal and make jokes about his having had the right idea about blowing up Parliament. Some try to make him sound more ‘relevant’ or ‘contemporary’ by calling him a ‘Catholic Jihadist’, but I think that is to misunderstand the politics and religion of the seventeenth century. Personally, I feel sorry for Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. I don’t approve of what they tried to do, but their deaths were ugly; and the legacy they bequeathed, that Catholics are not really to be trusted, has lingered long.

So, how shall I mark 5 November here in the monastery? It happens to be the day when we say the Office of the Dead for all our deceased relatives, friends and benefactors. In praying for the dead, we are asking for their sins to be forgiven, for them to be purified of any remaining imperfection. As far as I know, I don’t have any personal connection with Fawkes or any of the other twelve Gunpowder Plot conspirators, but I shall pray for the forgiveness of their sins; and I shall do so as a loyal Englishwoman, because at the heart of today’s commemoration is a painful paradox. Each of us has many loyalties that, to outsiders, may seem competing but which in an individual are resolved and unified.  5 November is a reminder of this complexity and a challenge to any simplistic categorisation of others.

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Low Sunday

I love our homely English name ‘Low Sunday’ for Dominica in Albis, the Octave Day of Easter, when those baptized at the Easter Vigil traditionally laid aside their white garments and put on an Agnus Dei made of wax blessed by the pope to remind them of their newborn innocence in Christ. Another name is Quasimodo Sunday, from the words we sing at the introit of the Mass, Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. Alleluia, Alleluia. (‘As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile,’ etc, from 1 Peter 2.2). Low Sunday, however, is my favourite: it describes exactly that lowering of intensity we feel at the end of the Easter Octave. We have sung alleluia over and over again, rejoiced and given thanks: there seems nothing left to give. Joy, like grief, reaches a point where it almost numbs the senses.

Then we hear again the gospel of Thomas’s encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20. 19–31. I have often remarked that the Church uses John’s gospel at the peak moments of the Christian year. Surely this moment, when the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and Thomas’s doubts are resolved, is a peak moment for all of us. It shows us not only what Christ accomplished through his Death and Resurrection but also why he suffered. His wounds are transfigured: love and compassion have made them beautiful, so that they are no longer blemishes but the source of grace and healing.

Christ’s Risen Body will always bear the wounds our sins have made upon them. That is not an easy thought. We are forgiven, we are redeemed, but at what cost! Surely we can tremble with Thomas at the enormity of the gulf that separates us from God, and the enormity of the love that spans the gap between. Low Sunday confronts us with the mercy and forgiveness of God less brutally than Good Friday, perhaps, but just as insistently.

The end of the Easter Octave is not the end of Easter. Low Sunday invites us to go deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Easter message. Just as the flame of the paschal candle continues to burn, so we too must continue to explore what it means to respond to our Lord’s invitation, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’.

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