Hugs on the Way
by Fr. Jack McArdle
The road back to the Garden leads us into the eternal hug of the Father. The longest journey begins with the first step. The prize at the end of the road can be experienced within certain limitations during the journey itself. There is a big word called Eschatology and it has to do with the doctrine about death, judgment, hell, and heaven. Essentially it says that all that will be, is already here, although we have to wait till a later time to be able to comprehend it fully. In other words, I will only really understand these realities after I die, even though I know that they already exist.
I mention this because I believe that the Father's hug is already available to us, even if we are very limited in our ability to comprehend the full implications of that truth. I would suggest that the nearest I can come to realising the fullness of this promise is that I accept that the forgiveness is mine, and, because of that, I begin right now to share out that forgiveness to all those around me. To forgive is to remit, to let off when it involves a debt; or to pardon, when it involves an offence.
Redemption is a word that comes from the time when slaves were bought and soul. Christian charities collected money, and, when they had enough, they bought a slave from the slave-owner, and then allowed the slave go free. Redemption meant to free another from a bondage of any kind; and surely being trapped in slavery must be one of the worst forms of bondage. I have no rights, I have no possessions, no future, or no hope of bettering my human condition. To be redeemed by another is to be given a complete and absolute total free gift; something that, of myself, I could never hope to achieve. In cases when a slave escaped, he/she had to live the life of a fugitive, always looking over one's shoulders, and never sure when the trap is going to spring, and life would end up much worse than before.
Inviting me back to the Garden is God's guarantee that total redemption and forgiveness awaits me there when I arrive. Because the end of my journey ends up in complete reconciliation with God, then my journey up to that point must display my own willingness to offer forgiveness and reconciliation to those I meet along that journey. Unconditional forgiveness is offered by God, and, because I believe that this will be my certain destiny, I myself must use every opportunity life gives me to dispense forgiveness to each and every one who offends me. My journey towards my own complete forgiveness should be especially remarkable by my own willingness to forgive others along the way.
Jesus tells a very interesting and significant story in the gospel. Because of what we can learn from it, it is worth quoting in full. "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked 'Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?' "No!" Jesus replied, "seventy times seven. For this reason, the Kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn't pay, so the king ordered that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. But the man fell down before the king, and begged him 'Oh, sir, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.' Then the king was filled with pity for him, and he released him, and forgave his debt.
But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat, and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him, and begged for a little more time. 'Be patient, and I will pay it', he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn't wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt could be paid in full.
When some of the other servants saw this they were very upset. They went to the king and told him what had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven, and said 'You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn't you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?' Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny." (Mt. 18:21-35) Jesus concluded the parables with these words: "That's what my heavenly Father will do to you, if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart."
I have quoted this fully, because I consider it to point to the core of a very important Christian value. If I forgive, I am forgiven; if I don't forgive, I am not forgiven. On this journey of forgiveness, it would be a good idea to begin with myself. Guilt is not from God. Jesus says that he came to save the world, not to condemn it (Jn. 12:47). Satan is called "the accuser of our brothers…he accuses them before God night and day" (Rev. 12:10). Having remorse, regret, sorrow, for what I have done is not guilt. I did what I did, and it can't be undone. "O God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…". The only way to deal with my sins is to wash them away in the blood of the Lamb. It's like putting badly stained clothes into a washing-machine, with a very powerful detergent. The clothes come out the other end, completely cleaned and spotless.
God wastes nothing. "All things work together onto good, for those who love God" (Rom. 8:28). The only value the past has are the lessons it taught me. Any compassion I may have has come out of my own experience of weakness and brokenness. I would be a much humbler, tolerant, and compassionate person today, if I learned everything life has taught me, especially through my own failures. "A friend is someone to whom you may pour out all the contents of your heart, grain and chaff together, knowing that gentle hands will sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and, with the breath of kindness, will blow the chaff away" (Arabian proverb).
Jesus is such a friend. It is vital that I get real with him. He or his message is not just some nice idea that would make the world a better place, if taken seriously. No, I can turn to him right now, and invite him into my heart, with a whip of chords, and ask him to rid my heart of everything that is not of him. If I am sincere in what I'm doing, I stand up at the beginning of Mass, and confess my sins, and ask for forgiveness. Should I then take all those sins back out the door with me when I'm leaving? There is such a thing, of course, as guilt. I can be found guilty in a court of law, and receive a penalty for it. What I am speaking about here is what remains after the sins have been confessed, the penalty is served, the contempt is purged.
"I continue to flog myself" is a phrase often heard. The guilt involved here is more self-condemnation, impatience with self, wounded pride, than anything else. If I really want to become a forgiving person, then I must begin with myself. In the catechism of my school days, there was a teaching about some spot or mark being left, even after a sin is forgiven. In other words, I'm forgiven, but not really! God buries the hatchet, but he marks the spot, to dig it up when needed! I know it's not possible for the human mind to fully grasp the enormous generosity and scope of God's love. When God forgives, he suffers from total amnesia, and forgets all. Should I confess "I did it again, Lord", he will be puzzled at the "again", because he has forgotten the last time. When God forgives our sins, he dumps them in the deepest lake of his infinite mercy. Problem is, he puts a sign on the lake "No Fishing".
God created us in his own image and likeness, and we can easily return the compliment! "Your God is too small" is the name of a popular religious book of some years ago. I could continue to the end of this book with this whole area of forgiving myself, and how basic and essential it is, but I must move on. Anyhow, it is only the Holy Spirit who can implant this truth in the heart, and not the number of pages I use in writing about it. If I have any personal knowledge of Jesus, then I surely couldn't have any problem accepting his readiness to forgive, and to ask me to do the same. "I want you to love one another as I love you" (Jn. 15:12). Loving one another includes myself.
I personally believe that forgiveness is a gift of the Spirit, so my point of departure is to open my heart to the Spirit, and ask for the gift. Remember we are talking about "seventy times seven" here; that is forgiveness for everybody. The road to heaven is heaven. On my way back to that eternal hug, I must begin dispensing my own hugs along the way. If I do this, I become more and more Christ-like, and, when I do reach the Father, he may see much more family resemblance in me, when he looks at me! Becoming a forgiving person involves a whole process of transformation.
Transformation is prefaced by information and formation. The place to begin is the teaching of Jesus. Read what he said, again and again, in many and different situations. In the one short prayer he taught us, he gives us the words "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us". (Lk. 11:4). "If you forgive people's sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive, they are not forgiven" (Jn. 20:23).
The public sinner who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, was declared to be forgiven "because she has loved much" (Lk. 7:47). In other words, if this woman was alienated from God, she could not possibly love the way she does, because love comes from God. It is important to notice the scope for interchange here between love and forgiveness. The journey home is a journey of love that is expressed very powerfully through forgiveness. To err is human; to forgive is divine. I am walking the path of reconciliation, and that path leads safely back into the arms of my Heavenly Father.
Once again, at the risk of being repetitious, I stress that this is only possible through the Spirit working within. I referred earlier to information, meaning following Jesus around in the different gospel situations, and seeing how he treated others. This information will filter from the head down into the heart, and the Spirit will use it to form my heart, and give me a forgiving heart. What extraordinary and powerful example is placed before me, to hear Jesus praying for those who are killing him, and offering eternal reconciliation to a wayward sinner on a cross beside him. How could I possibly not see forgiveness at the very core of his message, and deeply ingrained within his own heart? "I came to save the world, not to condemn it" (Jn. 3:17).
God leaves all judgement to Judgement Day, and he asked us to do the same. If we are to continue his work on earth, then we have no choice but to try to live as Jesus lived. He wrote the script, and it's up to each of us to act our parts. It is a musical, and every discordant note will send shudders through the listeners. We are the leaven in the dough, and our presence is supposed to make a difference.
Howard Wilson from Enniskillen in northern Ireland, was known world-wide for one thing: He publicly and repeatedly forgave those who had planted a bomb in a public place, which killed his daughter. The whole country was deeply moved by his example, and witness. Although he did not live in the Irish Republic, he was persuaded by the Dublin government to become a member of the Senate, and he did so till his death a few years ago. It was felt that his very presence, in the Senate, or anywhere, would be a powerful influence for good on those around him.
One of the paradoxes in the gospel is the stress put on the power available to the meek, the gentle, the forgiving. The world couldn't deal with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Steve Beko. In refusing to strike back, they were seen to have a power greater than guns. The only way the world could deal with them was to kill them. Jesus was gentle, meek and humble of heart (Mt. 11:29). He set out his stall in Bethlehem, and he showed how God views things. Pride is the greatest cause of unforgiveness, because there is something in us that needs to triumph over others, and we demand our pound of flesh, to satisfy our ego. When I refuse to let the ego run wild, and do the Christ-like thing, I am slowly but surely moving along that road to the Garden.
A straw shows the way the wind is blowing. I show the direction my life is taking through my actions. "Seventy times seven". Again and again and again. This must surely be GIFT, because, of myself, I never could do this. I'm not talking about being a door-mat, and allowing others walk all over me. No, no. When necessary, Jesus took a very firm stand against the stubborn, obstinate Jewish religious leaders. He told them what he thought of them, in no uncertain language. If, however, he detected good-will on their part, as with Nicodemus (Jn. 3), he was completely at their service. An apology is effective only when it is accepted.
Satan could not possibly repent, because his pride would never allow him admit that he was wrong. The religious leaders were so self-righteous as to be destructive in their intolerance of others. There was no forgiveness in those hearts, which, like marble tomb stones, were filled with filth and rotting bones. They could never become life-giving people. When I forgive another, I set that person free, but I also set myself free. It's so easy to get caught in the trap of a resentment. Resentments are very destructive, and are often a luxury most of us can ill afford. If I have a resentment against you, it's as if I'm drinking poison, and I'm expecting you to die!
I feel I have only skimmed the surface of this whole area of forgiveness, and, as I continue to reflect, I see more and more areas that need to be kissed with forgiveness. I will end this chapter now, however, trusting the good-will of you, gentle reader, to take what is offered, and check out your own road back to the Garden. I'm sure I have written enough to highlight the absolute necessity of constant and on-going forgiveness along the way, as I move nearer the greatest hug of forgiveness that is possible, and am held in that hug for all eternity.
PS "But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too" (Mk. 11:25).
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