The Word Embodied

Forgiveness

“As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

Everywhere the apostles went after the resurrection, they seem to have carried the message, “Peace be with you.” Despite resistance to their proclamation of the Messiah, they found new power to work signs and wonders. The sick were cured, the troubled were healed.

The events of Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection were the sign of his undying ascendancy over every threat of worldly dominion. Revelation’s rhapsody played through their zeal.

“There is nothing to fear. I am the first and the last and the one who lives. Once I was dead but now I live—forever and ever.”

We are led by the Gospels’ resurrection accounts to think that such confidence was not there from the start. The followers of Jesus, despite the reports of his rising, were locked in a hidden enclave, struck with fear.

It is in this context that the final appearance of Jesus occurs in the body of the fourth Gospel. His words, twice spoken, brought the peace that the disciples would later proclaim to others, for he was sending them to bring good news just as the Father had sent him. “Peace be with you.”

Then he breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive others’ sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.”

Forgiveness, and the peace that comes with it, is one of the great themes of Jesus’ mission. By this he was not only announced to the world; it was also his final gift.

In his teachings, he called us to forgive seventy times seven times, and he fashioned parables of lavish pardon. Forgiveness was portrayed as so central to our lives that it was almost as if our refusal to forgive could somehow harden our hearts.

The unforgiving heart languishes unforgiven, incapable of receiving forgiveness.

The prayer Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount instructs us to say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We say it at every eucharistic liturgy, as we prepare for Communion.

Have you ever been struck by the irony in the way we can so effortlessly receive the body of Christ, having prayed the Our Father, while we carry clinkers of resentment in our spirits? I wonder if that is why the power of the Eucharist seems so diminished in us.

We walk heavily to the altar, unaware of the surging mystery around us. If we only believed the words: “Lord, I am not worthy, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

This asking for and giving of pardon will unlock something in us. Forgiveness frees. Without it, we are stuck, caught, bound down.

Have you ever heard a father, knotted with rage, say through clenched teeth, “I will never forgive my child”? Have you ever seen a wife, heavy with invisible chains, say, “I will never forgive him again.”

I can remember nights spent, dry and restless, after having wounded another, in such stark contrast to those evenings when I had the courage not to let the sun fully set upon my anger.

I can remember dawns, awakening with the dusty grind of being held unforgiven by another. I woke brittle, like honey gone hard. Unwillingness to forgive is something we carry like a weight. The whole world becomes heavier as we become sterner.

But there is a lightness, a suppleness, in forgiveness. Breathing is easier, fresher. When we forgive, we tap perhaps the deepest of our powers, to create something new out of nothingness.

When we are forgiven, it is as if the world no longer wars. Demilitarized zones are unneeded. The suspicious, tentative glance disappears, and the delicate balance of power dissolves. Disarmament occurs. “Peace I give to you.”

Yet peace, like forgiveness, must be received with open hands. The only way to get unstuck is to be lifted up and out. So it is with the mystery of the Lord’s passover.

God’s love for us, even in our sinful state, is there for the asking if we only believe. We must accept the lavish gift we have not earned.

And the more deeply we receive his gift, the more freely we give it.

Once we are filled by forgiveness from God, we know how appropriate it is to offer it to others without their earning it.

The Apostles, notwithstanding the shame and the fear, finally believed this. All is made right: wounds, loss, confusion. And having tasted the sweet abundant joy, there was no other choice but to shout it to the heavens, to bring it to the nations, to share it with an incredulous world.

The fruit of the Resurrection was their community of faith, hope, and love, their church of Jesus’ way. Word eventually got around: “See how they love one another.”

John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.

 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson