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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How to Be a Good Sinner

Sometimes my readers make me feel knee-high to a grasshopper. They manage to lead lives of great generosity and holiness in the midst of circumstances I would find unbearable. Here I am in the monastery, well-fed (too well-fed, to be honest), surrounded by books and music and gardens, with a handsome hound (a.k.a. Bro Duncan PBGV) and a very holy nun (a.k.a. Quietnun) to cheer and chivvy me by turns, the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church to inspire me and the Rule of St Benedict to guide me, yet I still don’t quite make the grade. I fail as often as I try. I am a sinner through and through. And that’s not a little bit of hyperbole, like that of the Spaniard who had ‘El Gran Peccador’ carved on his tombstone, it is the simple truth.

Can anything redeem that bald statement, or is it all negative? I think being a sinner, and knowing and acknowledging that one is a sinner, means one is open to grace, which is what really matters. Our very need cries out to God for help, and we know he will never spurn our cry. I like to quote the example of the Desert Father who described his life as falling down and getting up again. To be a good sinner all we need do is follow his example, trusting in the mercy of God and asking his help to amend for the future. Grace will work its miracle in us, if we allow it.

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Poverty and Riches

Contrary to the opinion of some, Christianity — at least in its Catholic form — regards neither poverty nor riches as a sign of God’s favour or disfavour. Why, then, is the ‘prosperity gospel’ proving so attractive? Yesterday, not for the first time, our email prayerline contained many requests for financial blessings. Some mentioned distressing situations: nowhere to live, not enough to eat, inadequate or non-existent healthcare, the inability to pay college fees, and so on. Others clearly regarded prayer as a means of obtaining everything the petitioner thought would make him/her happy: a big house, fast car, trophy girl/boyfriend, and so on. We may smile over these, agreeing sagely that money can’t buy happiness, but the fact remains that many people still think of wealth as directly related to God’s blessing and, more troubling still, a blessing that is in some way deserved. By contrast, those who lack anything are under God’s curse, and that is equally deserved. How did such a skewed view of things ever arise?

I wonder whether it is a reaction to centuries of various forms of Christian quietism. Upholding the status quo, not challenging the establishment, accepting that

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

is a self-evident truth (whereas it is nothing of the sort) may have played their part. On the whole, Catholicism has tended to exalt the value of being poor over the value of being rich, recognizing that material plenty can clutter our spiritual vision; but no one can argue that the Church has ever herself felt the need to be poor as an institution.

Lent is a good time to think through our attitudes to poverty and riches, especially as almsgiving is an essential feature of our Lenten discipline. Mercy and compassion aren’t the first qualities that spring to mind when we think of riches, but for Christians they ought to be. That is what we are asked to demonstrate with particular generosity throughout these days of Lent. Our almsgiving shouldn’t be token giving; it should be from the heart, and as much as we can give, whether we’re talking money or some other form of giving, e.g. time. But there is still the underlying attitude to consider. Do we give from a position of superiority, or do we share from the same level? In short, are we believers in the ‘prosperity gospel’ without realising it, or are we ready to accept that we are all equally God’s children and as such bound to one another? The answers may prove uncomfortable, but Lent is a time for being made uncomfortable.

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A Work of Mercy

Burying the dead is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. It goes back to Jewish tradition (see the opening of the Book of Tobit) and is generally regarded as being a civilized thing to do. Today, in London, there will be several funerals, but for many the spotlight will be on just one, that of Lady Thatcher. Already there has been heated disagreement and our security forces have been prepared for outbreaks of violence. This is not the place to go over the arguments for and against the funeral plans or their cost, but I would like to suggest a reason why violence at the funeral would be . . . inappropriate.

When we bury the dead we are doing more than disposing of ‘mortal remains’. We are marking the end of someone’s life on earth and their entry, as we hope, into eternal life, commending their soul to God and praying for mercy. As a Catholic, I naturally think that most of us pass from death into a state of purification known as purgatory, which we who are alive have a duty to aid with our prayers. So, our prayers for the dead person do not end with their death. Our connectedness remains, so much so that I would argue that each of us has a role to play in the death and funeral rites of every person on earth. In the monastery we are frequently reminded of this. Not only do we have a long Office of the Dead which we pray on certain days of the year, we remember the dead at the conclusion of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal.

Today there will be people all over Britain grieving for the death of someone they love. There will also be funerals of people who have no one to mourn them but the clergyman or woman who takes the service and represents the rest of society. Whatever our views on what is happening in central London today, perhaps that thought could give us pause. In death we become as everyone else who has died, but we are still bound together with the living and the living have a duty to the dead. Let us ask the mercy of God for all who have died, knowing that in doing so we ask mercy for ourselves and all whom we have ever loved.

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Our Need of Wholeness

Last year, when I wrote about today’s antiphon, O Rex Gentium, at some length (see here), I concentrated on the idea of God’s authority, which is so different from our usual experience. Today, however, I’d like to focus on what the antiphon says about wholeness.

Most of us would probably admit that we are broken in some way, discordant, at odds with both ourself and others to a greater or lesser extent. Most of the time we bumble along quite happily and only really register that something is amiss when we see the fruits of that inner discordance: a row with someone perhaps, or a sudden feeling of flatness and weariness in the midst of what ‘ought’ to be unalloyed happiness. It can be distressing. Of course we have to live with imperfection, in ourselves as much as in others, but we do not like it. I think the antiphon’s insistence on our fragility — mere vessels of clay that we are — and on God’s strength — the corner-stone of our lives — is a powerful reminder that the wholeness we seek comes to us as a gift. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation.

Today, as we pray for the coming of the King of the nations, the corner-stone who has made both Jew and gentile one, let us pray that whatever in us is broken or out of tune may be restored to wholeness through his mercy. And may the mercy shown to us teach us to be merciful to others.

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A Different Kind of Lent

God has very gently but definitely decided that our plans for Lent should be different from what we had expected. It happens every year, but as always, there is something we could not have foreseen, an entirely new twist. It all began with a mega-migraine for Quietnun. By Shrove Tuesday every thought of carnival and pancakes had disappeared and the monastery had assumed a Lenten simplicity and seriousness. The spareness inside matched the cold spring sunshine outside.

On Tuesday evening came news that a dear friend, who had spent twenty-three years as a nun but who had had to leave for health reasons, was in a hospice, in the final stages of a long, slow death from cancer. Tuesday night was spent praying for her; at mid-day on Ash Wednesday we heard that she had died. Her Lent now over, surely she will soon be Eastering with the saints for ever.

As I walked to church, I could not help reflecting that we had entered the mystery of death and rebirth we shall celebrate at Easter; had already experienced something of our own human frailty; were being asked to hope in spite of all. The ashes we received were made from the palms carried in procession on Palm Sunday last year: a reminder that human triumphs do not last very long, only God is eternal. I thought, too, that the love of the Lord is everlasting and his mercies new every morning. This Lent we are called to live in awareness of his mercy in a way we never have before. God has written our Lent Bill.

(Please see the Shrove Tuesday post for an explanation of what a Lent Bill is; and I didn’t get Leviticus, I got St John’s Gospel.)

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