‘In the early morning,’ ‘before the sun had risen,’ ‘while it was still dark’: these phrases capture something of the mystery of the Resurrection. In the half-light only the eyes of faith see clearly. Is it any wonder, then, that St Mary Magdalene is the ‘apostle to the apostles’, that, through eyes washed clean with tears, she saw the Lord? Throughout Holy Week our attention has been focused on the terrible duel between good and evil and on those who surround Jesus with menace or sheer misunderstanding: Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, Peter. It has been a very male business, but now the women edge into the picture. They stood by the Cross, they anointed Jesus’ dead body and now they proclaim the Resurrection. Peter’s momentary failure will be forgiven; the disciples will be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit; and all our own sin and failure will be swallowed up by the empty tomb. Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!
In this fourth post, I’d like to consider the relationship between mercy and forgiveness and the experience many of us have as ‘average church-goers’. We are not, by and large, theologians or scripture scholars; most of us are lay people, and the majority of us would probably admit to being weighed down at times by a sense of failure or bafflement that, despite our best efforts, we seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. We find it hard to forgive others, and sometimes even harder to forgive ourselves. We are an Easter people with more than a whiff of sulphur about us.
I think it’s perfectly normal to feel like that, but feelings alone are never a very good guide to what is going on. Moreover, mercy and forgiveness are not the whole story, at least, not as we experience life. There are other concepts that, practically speaking, prove just as important: justice, for example, and a multitude of other factors that come into play whenever we talk about sin, love, mercy, all the big things in life. We are complicated and complicating creatures. At times we feel we’re running some kind of race, but it’s not always the one we think we are, and our own muddled thinking may be to blame for some of our problems. God’s mercy isn’t at war with his justice, yet we tend to think it is. Many of our difficulties follow from that false opposition. Let me try to explain.
How often, when we talk of someone’s being merciful, do we mean that they have let somebody else off scot-free (incidentally, a very telling term relating to a tax or settlement of an obligation) and allowed them to escape a punishment that was properly due to them? We forget entirely the biblical origins of the word (see post 1) with its connotations of pity and fellow-feeling. Effectively, we harden our hearts and close ourselves to forgiveness — a bit like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who was angry that his younger brother should behave badly and then be welcomed back joyfully. The injustice of it! (And if you don’t have a sneaking sympathy for the elder son, believe me, you are very, very virtuous.)
If we don’t rebel against such undeserved good fortune in another, we try to make a distinction between forgiving and forgetting — which is reasonable enough until we recognize that all the effort we are putting into remembering makes it impossible ever really to forgive. The truth is that forgiveness is rarely a once-for-all act. If it were, it would be much easier. We human beings may have to forgive again and again, taking the anger and hurt we have experienced and dashing them against Christ, who alone can draw the poison. We have to insert ourselves into a dynamic of forgiveness, as it were. I’m guessing the elder son in the parable sometimes found his brother’s face at breakfast hard to bear and had to make a conscious effort not to say or do something cutting. It would not be strange if he sometimes failed, just as we do.
We make life harder for ourselves by wanting God’s justice to be exactly like our own. Our modern ideas are associated with law and the scrupulous apportionment of blame and punishment. We talk about ‘justice being done’ in a court case and mean that guilt has been ascertained and punishment meted out. An older idea of justice certainly includes that notion, but it has as its primary focus the restoration of right order, which is a more difficult concept for most of us to grasp. Right order isn’t a wishy-washy attempt to annoy no-one or ‘live and let live’ in a world that has very little to trouble or vex it. Concern for right order implies a powerful and sustained attempt to ensure fairness in a world that is manifestly unfair, flawed, difficult to categorize. It means working to resolve conflicts before they degenerate into hatred or hostility, and a readiness to acknowledge the claims of others in an equable manner. It is really quite exhausting, because justice of this kind can never be automatic, either in its operation or in its sanctions — unlike the fixed-penalty fines for certain transgressions of the civil law.
There is a further problem, of course. We look at the Crucifix and see Jesus hanging there, knowing he has taken on himself our sickness and sin, and we feel guilty (see post 2). We turn our gaze away from him and focus on ourselves, seeing nothing but negativity. Then we remember that it was love, not nails, that kept him there; that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘if I could have suffered more, I would have suffered more’; and all our theoretical ideas about sin and punishment come tumbling round our ankles and we must look Mercy in the face and know him, as for the first time, ruefully admitting that our ideas were too small for so great a Redeemer, one who wants to share his very life with us (see post 3). We speak of sins to be forgiven, debts to be repaid, but he annihilates them all in the abyss of his love! He wants us to be what God intended from the first: true images of himself, whole, healed, beautiful.
One of the great gifts of the monastic order to the Church has been private sacramental confession — an opportunity to meet the mercy of God and experience the joy of being forgiven not just once, on our death-bed, but throughout life, again and again. Over the centuries the Church has articulated the theology of this sacrament with great care. Everyone knows that it is not enough to state one’s sins and express sorrow for them. One must also put right what one can and have a firm purpose of amendment — the desire to change for the better. These are sometimes seen as necessary pre-conditions for forgiveness; and sadly, people often become so focused upon their ability/inability to meet them that they miss the fact that God’s grace is already operating in them, already drawing them to the sacrament to experience his mercy and forgiveness. In an important sense we can say that we have already been forgiven if we seek God’s forgiveness, although we have still to make the changes in our lives that forgiveness demands. A problem comes, however, when we have to apply to others the grace we have ourselves received. Forgiven, yes; but forgiving?
One often hears people say that forgiveness has to be earned, that there has to be evidence of repentance. I don’t think that measures up to the gospel standard. God in Christ forgave us without any evidence of repentance on our part, without our doing anything at all to earn his forgiveness; and I think he expects us to follow his example in relation to others. We are to make others whole as we have been made whole ourselves. The disciples were told to forgive an uncomfortable number of times. When asked who our neighbour is, Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show how we ourselves must be neighbours to others. We are to concentrate on what we can do, not on what we think someone else should do, but we have a tendency to waste time and effort on their sins and shortcomings which we usually see more clearly than our own. An example will show what I mean.
I have sometimes been questioned about the fate of Judas by those who want absolute certainty regarding something the Church wisely prefers to remain reticent about. It is a little too close to ‘delighting in the sins of others’ for my taste — I have enough sins of my own to worry about — but I can see why it can be troubling. We want a world in which the parameters of good and evil are marked in black and white, where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Having to tread a path that’s largely different shades of grey is more problematic. It means we have to make choices, and how will we know we’re making the right ones? We won’t always, alas, and there’s the difficulty. Where sin is not so much a matter of debts to be calculated and repaid but a sickness to be healed and an estrangement to be ended, our firm footing in the world can look decidedly wobbly. Knowing that we can never fall below the love of God is fine in theory, but in practice we can feel lonely and exposed, buffeted by conflicting opinions and desires. We want to do the right thing but, like St Paul, have the sinking feeling that oftentimes we fail. We forget that Christ came among us to deal with failure and restore us to fullness of life.
In calling on the Church to celebrate an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is asking us to be stretched in ways we never thought possible. He is asking us to experience more deeply than ever before God’s unfailing love for us, and to share that love with others. I have no doubt that, as the year unfolds, there will be much to ponder, much to do. Pope Francis is asking us to become, in effect, what Mary, the Mother of God, was: an aqueduct, a channel for the life-giving fountain which is Christ. That is no mean task for us all.
Note: the Vatican has set up a special web site of resources for the Holy Year which you can find here. If you feel daunted by the size of the task the Holy Year lays upon us, let’s ask the prayers of St Mark, whose feast-day it is. The short ending of his gospel concludes with the disciples’ feeling afraid, not yet the confident evangelists they were to become. (Mk 16.8) I think most of us can probably identify with that.
Today we have Matthew’s account of the betrayal (Matthew 26.14–25), and how different it is from John’s! Here Jesus is utterly in control of the situation; it is the disciples who are distressed and thrown into confusion, and how dark is the colouring given to Judas. We are meant to shudder, and we do.
Is there any of us who does not know what it is, in some measure, to betray a friend or get things so badly wrong that we end up bringing about the very thing we most want to avoid? Can we find in Judas’s betrayal something that enables us both to forgive and ourselves accept forgiveness? It isn’t an easy question, and it doesn’t have an easy answer; but I think it is worth thinking and praying about because it gets to the heart of what we are celebrating this week: God’s infinite love and mercy, and his total forgiveness of human sin. We can’t earn his forgiveness; there are times when we are too stupid or stubborn to ask his forgiveness; yet he forgives! And he expects us to forgive, too. That doesn’t mean God approves of what we do when we sin. Forgiveness isn’t a quick-fix to restore a feel-good factor to our lives. It is meant to lead to conversion, to change, and it provides the energy and direction we need to make such a change.
I think we could usefully spend a few minutes today thinking about the people we don’t forgive — those we accuse of acting badly or dishonestly or in some way that we disapprove of — and then ask ourselves whether we are so sea-green incorruptible that we have the right to accuse others. I doubt whether any of us will come through such a period of reflection without becoming shame-faced. It will remind us to pray for Judas, and for the Judas we have discovered inside ourselves. All of us need the grace of conversion.
Spy Wednesday is sometimes treated with an almost frivolous disregard of the betrayal it signifies. We don’t like remembering that Judas played an essential part in our redemption, that sin and betrayal are at the heart of the Christian story every bit as much as grace and forgiveness. We should think again, for we all have something of Judas in us. We all share in his shabbiness — or rather, we all share in his capacity for getting things wrong.
One of the striking things about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is that I think he thought he was doing the right thing. He was hoping for a Messiah who would free Israel from Rome and usher in a Jewish kingdom of righteousness and peace. He wanted to force the issue and make Jesus take a stand. We know he was wrong, but good people are often seduced by apparently good things. Judas failed to take account of the fact that Jesus wasn’t interested in political power, and therein lies his tragedy. Catherine of Siena worried about Judas’s fate but was reassured by the Lord that there was the prospect of mercy even for him. Perhaps today we might pray for all who have betrayed or been betrayed, for ourselves and for others. We might pray also for Judas, and for mercy on his soul.
Today we read Matthew’s account of Judas’s betrayal (you can read the text in both Greek and English here). We sense the shiver down the spine of Jesus as he looked at his friend and knew him for what he was. If you read what some people say about about that moment, you could be forgiven for thinking Jesus was prohesying eternal punishment — ‘better for that man if he had never been born!’ — but I wonder whether that is true. Does it square with what we know of him in other circumstances, what we know of him from our own experience? Isn’t it more likely that when Jesus looked at Judas he saw the depths of despair and misery into which he would fall? My own, possibly heretical, reading of this gospel is that Jesus’ heart ached for Judas. He longed to spare him the suffering he knew would be his.
That presents us with a problem. God is infinitely just and does not condone sin; he is also infinitely merciful and forgives readily. So, is Judas eternally damned or among the redeemed? We do not know, and the fact that we do not know should give us pause. Sometimes Christians speak of Judas with a fury which tells us much more about them than it does about him. There is no place in Holy Week for that kind of vicarious anger. We do not need to look very deep into our own lives to see the sins that mar us. Today would be a good day for repenting of hasty judgements and hardness of heart, and allowing God to forgive us.
Today we read the gospel of the betrayal at Mass. When we come to the words ‘Night had fallen,’ we know that the darkness which envelops us is within as well as without. There are many varieties of betrayal, not all of them as easy to identify as that of Judas. The ‘white lie’, the covert act of selfishness, the shabby evasion of responsibility, even the unconvincing ‘justifications’ we concoct in our pathetic attempts to excuse ourselves to ourselves, they are all a betrayal of what we know to be true. Today is a day to think about the ways in which we who acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Saviour betray him by adopting ways of behaviour inconsistent with the gospel — not to beat ourselves up about them, but to ask mercy and forgiveness and firm purpose of amendment.
The tragedy of Judas is that he finally saw the awfulness of what he had done but forgot the infinite mercy and compassion of God.
We read Matthew’s account of the betrayal today, but it is set in context by being linked with Isaiah 50. Jesus is not a victim in the sense that we usually use that word. He gives his life; it is not taken from him. But Matthew is harder on Judas than John is. Instead of a last, intimate dialogue which could have led to a different outcome, we have a brazen Judas defying Jesus, almost goading him to unmask him.
Here is the shame of Holy Week, when Truth stands before all our lies and half-lies. There is no confrontation, no attempt to challenge the falsity. The shabbiness of betrayal and deceit is shown up for what it is, but Jesus’ response to Judas is one of anguish, not condemnation. The medieval poets understood this better than most. They move from voice to voice, from Christ to the onlooker and back again, their lines marked with a huge compassion simply expressed. Christ is the noble lord betrayed by his beloved . . . ‘Lovely tear from lovely eye, why dost thou look so sore?’ . . . The believer can only mourn the wrong which results from that betrayal:
With sadness in my song
And grief at what I see
I sigh and mourn the wrong
Upon the gallows-tree.
We are very close to the Sacred Triduum now. Today is a day for confession of sins and a firm purpose of amendment. Sometimes the only way of dealing with shame is to acknowledge the source of it and allow God’s healing grace to flood the soul.