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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A Monastic Year in Retrospect: 2014

Winter at HTM

Today has dawned grey and silvery, bright with frost and the sharp tang of woodsmoke. While the rest of the world busies itself with New Year resolutions and a more or less dreary catalogue of what went wrong in 2014, here in the monastery we are thinking about the good zeal we ought to have (RB 72) and what we can do to make sure that 2014 ends on a positive note, with wrongs, insofar as in us lies, righted, forgiveness given and received, and hope and trust restored. You might think that was easy for us, but we live in the same world as you do, and have just as many quirks of character. Indeed, I sometimes think that the reason for Benedict’s insistence on our bearing charitably with one another is because monks and nuns are more quirky than most and make bigger demands on one another.

To put things right with another, we must first admit that something has gone wrong. That can be difficult, especially if we secretly think the other person responsible. Unfortunately, thinking like that tends to lead to another rehearsal of the original grievance; and we all know where that ends. I think we have to ask ourselves what we most desire: victory or harmony. That doesn’t mean we do violence to our sense of right and wrong or pretend to a fault we genuinely believe we haven’t committed, but it does mean humbly acknowledging that somewhere along the line, we haven’t been all we might have been. Aquinas wrote of that which, though not sin, had something of  the nature of sin about it; and we all know how easy it is to perform what used to be called an act of charity in such an uncharitable way that it is quite the opposite. The end of the year is a good time to reflect on these things and see what we can do about them.

Here in the monastery today and tomorrow will be days of mutual apology and reconciliation, of giving thanks, of thinking about the events of 2014 and our way of living through them, all with the firm purpose of trying to do better in 2015. 2014 was not an easy year for us, but it has been a year of blessing. Learning to give thanks in all circumstances doesn’t come naturally to most of us, any more than forgiveness does. Maybe that is why St Benedict ends his chapter on good zeal with a simple but heartfelt prayer: May they prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. Amen.

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Forgiveness and Martyrdom

Luis de Morales: St Stephen
Luis de Morales: St Stephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is sad that the word ‘martyr’ is now most commonly heard in the context of Islamic extremism. That is unfair to both Christians and Muslims, but it is particularly unfortunate that it should have distorted our understanding of what it means to witness to one’s beliefs. From a Christian perspective, the martyr does not choose to die, still less does he/she inflict death on others; he or she accepts death because the alternative — to accept a lie — is unthinkable.

Today, when we have barely had time to register the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Church directs our thoughts towards Stephen, the first Christian martyr (the Holy Innocents are also considered proto-martyrs although not strictly Christians) and we see the close connection between martyrdom and forgiveness. As Christians we witness best to the truth of Christ with our love and compassion. There are many ways of expressing that, and over the Christmas season, millions of people who think of themselves as ‘nothing very special’ will have shown extraordinary generosity and kindness to others. Forgiveness can be a bit more tricky. It doesn’t come naturally to us, because we find it harder to forgive an injury done to ourselves than to be universally benevolent. We have to deal with the particular, not the general; and so often, there is a history we are not keen to let go because it somehow validates our reluctance to forgive.

Stephen challenges all that nonsense. His witness to Christ is precisely that of someone who forgives, at the moment of death, those who have caused his suffering. In this he unites  himself with the sacrificial death of his Master. It is a short step from the crib to the cross. Today, as we survey the remains of yesterday’s jollifications, we are powerfully reminded that the Word became flesh, not so we could revel in holy sentimentality, but so we could change the world and make it what it is meant to be: a pure and beautiful reflection of the loving and compassionate heart of God who, in Christ, has forgiven us everything.

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Our Biggest Failure?

Most of us can probably recall an incident or action in our own lives that we think of as our biggest failure (and if we can’t, we either have severe amnesia or psychopathic tendencies). Many of us can pick out the faults and shortcomings of political institutions, big business, religious organizations or what you will with a keenness of insight and analysis that would leave the world breathless with admiration were it able to eavesdrop on our conversation. We cry ‘shame’ and point the finger of blame as we register yet another failure. But I wonder whether we are missing the biggest failure of all? Does our anger and negativity achieve anything, or does it merely add to the tide of anger and negativity that seems to be engulfing the whole world?

We are quick to state what is wrong, usually what is wrong with the other person/side, quick to hate and deride (though, of course, we prefer to think of it as ‘stating the truth boldly’ or ‘telling it how it is’) but we are often very slow to love and forgive. I think our biggest failure, both as individuals and collectively, is precisely this failure to love and forgive. We know how our own lives have been transformed by the love and graciousness of others, but we do not always stop to think how we ourselves could transform the lives of others in our turn.

In the last few years we have seen mounting political tensions across the globe, economic melt-down, violence and other horrors that defy expression. We have seen genocide and beheadings, the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and its environment, children deprived of education and the common decencies of life. No one is suggesting that an airy-fairy ‘love is all you need’ approach would solve any of this; and yet, love is, in fact, the only possible solution. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a wrong idea of love. It is not necessarily romantic or warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes, there is no feeling at all: just a pure-hearted determination to invite God into situations from which he seems to be excluded. It is the strong, clear, sacrificial kind of love that nails us to the Cross and holds us there with Christ. There never could be any failure in that.

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Agincourt and After by Bro Duncan PBGV

Today is St Crispin’s Day and the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Given my ancestry, I have mixed feelings about that. Do I get all patriotic about the English victory, or lament the French defeat? I’m a peaceable chap, so my tendency is to lie doggo and keep quiet. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, at home anywhere — especially in a comfy dog basket or beside a roaring fireside — so I don’t go in for arguments or quarrels. That doesn’t mean I lack love of country; but it does mean I don’t have to keep proclaiming that my country is better than yours or running yours down because it isn’t lucky enough to be mine.

I think BigSis is on to something when she says love is never negative about others. Love simply loves. The only competition love seeks is to be first in doing good to the other. I ‘spect that’s quite spiritual really. BigSis says you just have to look at a Crucifix and all your complicated ideas fall away when you see what love really means. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I’d do anything for Them. I’d forgive Them anything—anything at all. I think that’s what love means, don’t you?

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A Little Grumble About Stereotypes

I have a grumble, only a little one. It stems more from puzzlement than anything else. Several times during the past week I have come up against our failure as individuals and as a community to meet the expectations others have of us, yet the matters in which we have ‘failed’ have been so trivial as to be baffling. I think our experience begs the larger question of stereotyping and the injustice — I hope that is not too solemn a word — not only of trying to make others conform to our ideas about how they should live their lives but also of making assumptions about them. When challenged about the stereotypes applied to ourselves, we react in different ways. If skin colour is involved, we cry ‘racism’; if sex is involved, we cry ‘sexism’; if religion, we have a much more complex reaction. For Christians, in particular, there can be a feeling that we ought not to defend ourselves. We must try to be forgiving, even to the point where we cease to be human.

I suspect some readers will respond with indignation, ‘Of course we must forgive always, no matter how hard it is!’ I don’t disagree, what I’m saying is that in our forgiveness we mustn’t run beyond grace, we should not become doormats. To forgive is a process, not a once-for-all act (unless you’re very unusual), and really to forgive, rather than just put others on probation, requires courage as well as generosity. It means allowing Christ to forgive in us, and sometimes we get in the way of that. We forget that fake holiness is no holiness. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’ requires rather more than pretence, no matter how well-intentioned. It asks for a change of heart, and that’s not done just by wishing.

Perhaps spending a few moments today thinking about how non-Christians perceive Christians could be fruitful. It would alert us to the ways in which our responses may be (mis)understood — and anything that makes for better understanding among people generally is surely a Good Thing. It may also help us to see that sometimes we conform to other people’s stereotypes because that is the image we have (or want to have) of ourselves. That is a Bad Thing, because it means we are not living truthfully; and whatever else anyone may say, Truth matters.

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Forgiveness: Another Post by Bro Duncan PBGV

Last night I stayed up to welcome BigSis home after her return from York. I thought it was very sneaky of her to leave on Monday morning while I was having my post-brekkie nap, so I intended to do a dignified but distant kind of welcome, the sort that says, ‘I forgive you’ but means, ‘I’m putting you on probation: don’t you DARE do that again, or else!’ Well, you know me, once she walked through the door, my tail went into orbit (so much for dignified) and though I did manage to look soulful (my default look), I forgot about the distant bit. Then she said, ‘Hello, old rat-bag. Am I forgiven then?’ and something I didn’t quite understand about how there is joy among the angels when a sinner repents and is reconciled to God, which I think means that forgiveness is really rather wonderful and transforms everything, and my waggly tail is a good image of the sheer joy there is in heaven when humans come to their senses and are reconciled with God and one another; and then there was something about how stupid humans are to store up resentments, which is like taking poison and hoping the other person will die. I forget the rest, ‘cos I was really just pleased to have her back, but don’t tell her or she will become proud, and that is not good for her humility, not good at all.

I think I might do less of the dignified and distant in future and settle for forgiveness, plain and simple. It’s more fun, and if you try it, you may get a surreptitious bikkie or two like me.

Love,
Dunc xx

P.S. BigSis (Digitalnun) says I’m to get off her keyboard NOW. She will be blogging tomorrow.

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From Ashes to Roses (and possibly Back Again)

‘The time is out of joint,’ said Hamlet, and we know it. St Valentine in the secular calendar topples SS Cyril and Methodius from their place in the liturgical calendar, and with today’s unconfirmed reports that Oscar Pistorius has accidentally shot dead his girlfriend, the strangeness of this week, which has seen a pope announce his retirement from office, Carnival, and Ash Wednesday, continues.

But is it really so strange? We human beings tend to live life in linear fashion, going from one event to another, forgetting what has gone before unless it was particularly pleasant or unpleasant. Memory and forgetfulness are two sides of the same coin. The past is only as secure as our own or collective memory make it; the future is unknown. We must live in the present, and that surely is what Lent drives home to us. This is the day of salvation, the moment when we must choose good rather than evil; and without being too fanciful, I think we can understand it in terms of a movement from ashes to roses (and possibly back again).

Yesterday we wore ashes as a sign of repentance and the desire for conversion. Today many a rose will be offered as a sign of love and devotion. If our repentance is real, there must be the same rhythm in our own lives, the dynamic of love and forgiveness at work. You may not have anyone to whom you would wish to offer a rose today, but I daresay there is someone to whom you need to say sorry. It may be someone living or someone dead; it is, at any rate, someone you have bound in the chains of unforgiveness and whom you must set free. Saying sorry may be as dust and ashes in your mouth, but it will make something beautiful flower in your heart.

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Our Need of Light

I love the fact that we sing the antiphon O Oriens on the shortest day of the year.  In asking the Morning Star to dawn upon us, to scatter the darkness of sin and death and allow the Sun of Justice to shed his rays upon us, we are doing more than praying for a certain event to take place. We are asking to be transformed by the coming of Christ (the Sun of Justice), that we ourselves may live as children of light. It is one of those breath-taking prayers we utter without perhaps stopping to think what we mean.

To live as children of light is more than a liturgical catch-phrase, something we usually think of in an Easter context. It is a whole way of being, a genuinely radical change that we are hoping for in our lives. The contrast between light and darkness is stark, but it is amazing how complacent we can be about the shadowy aspects of our existence. Today would be a good day to think about those areas of our lives which need the healing and transforming light of Christ to shine upon them and seek his grace in the confessional. Sometimes naming what has gone wrong is enough to destroy its power over us. We have nothing to fear. Light is our proper environment.

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Courage

We have been fortunate in having two examples of courage to think about recently. Felix Baumgartner’s descent from space was spectacular and caught the imagination of the world’s media. As someone who finds it difficult to climb a ladder, I have no hesitation in calling him a very brave man — but I have no wish to emulate his bravery. The arrival of Malala Yousafzai at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham reminds us of another kind of courage: the daily courage of a young girl determined to become educated and ready to risk the wrath of the Taliban. For me, education involved no risks at all, but I’m such a coward, I’m not sure I would have  been able to live with a death threat for going to school.

Two different people, two different kinds of courage, both of them equally impossible for me and probably for many of my readers. There is a third kind of courage, and it’s worth thinking about. Forgiveness, given and received, is not the act of a weakling, an easy way out of a difficult situation. To accept forgiveness we need to acknowledge our responsibilty for wrongdoing. It wasn’t the woman who forced you to eat the apple, Adam, it was your own gluttony and desire to have something forbidden you. Equally, to forgive others, we have to admit that the wound dealt us is not the whole story: we have consciously to refuse to allow either ourselves or the other to be imprisoned by our shared history. Some of the stories of reconciliation and forgiveness following the Second World War are truly inspiring: the former prisoner of war and his Japanese captor shaking hands; the Holocaust survivor gently reminding his children that the lesson to be learned from the death camps is not what Germans did to Jews but what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

When we look at our own lives, we are often ashamed of the pockets of unforgiveness we find. Are we really so small? Do we need to cling to that old hatred? We all have different ways of coping with such challenges. If we apologize for everything, we don’t need to apologize for anything. If we don’t want to admit we’re wrong, we can cut the other person off. Even if it’s something as trivial as disagreeing with another’s opinion, we can just ignore them. Every blogger knows that when a reader is irritated or annoyed by an opinion expressed — or sometimes, the failure to express an opinion the reader would like to see — there is often a little huff, and the reader stops reading the blog. It’s payback time!

René Girard has written movingly of the dynamic of forgiveness, of the importance of not passing the poison on. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of the way in which God deals with sin and failure. The Cross was Jesus’ way of not passing the poison on — a supremely brave, as well as forgiving, act. That is the kind of courage we all need.

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