Sunday, February 18, 2007

Forgiveness

Today's gospel is one fo those hard teachings for us to follow: loving one's enemies, forgiving offenses, giving to those who do not give back, and yet it is so fundamental to who we are as Christians. Jesus reminds us today that we are called to love, really to charity, which isn't aout making a donation to a group that helps the poor, but a self-giving love that as Paul tells us in 1 Cor 13 is patient and kind, slow to anger. If we take a look at what we are called to and what we hear about, slow to anger, rich in steadfast and loving kindness, and if we listen to what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel, ie if we are one of those who "hear", then what we see is that we are being called to imitate God's love.

This is why Christ is placed as our true model and when we imitate the saints it is in respect to their imitation of Christ. We are to love as Christ loves us first. We are to forgive as we our forgiven by God so that we can truly say we believe in God's forgiveness and expect it in the future.

Something we must note... Jesus is not telling us that we must forgive to receive God's forgiveness. God's forgiveness is first and foremost a free gift. We can not buy this forgiveness or make deals with God in order to get Him to forgive us. He has already offered us His forgiveness when none of us we righteous (Romans 5) and nothing we do can make us worth to receive this forgiveness. This shouldn't make us feel depressed though (even if our pride which wants to prove itself and show how good we are is hurt), but rather we should remember that this gratuitous gift was because of God's love for us and will to restore us in His image and likeness. The fact that we need God and our dependent on Him does not mean that His love is pity (as if God needs to feel superior to us and put us down by helping us), but rather His aid is an expression of a Father who not only cares for us, but knows how to respect our freedom and invites us to join Him in the gift He is freely offering. Our sanctification, then becomes our cooperation with God's will for us, and of course "unless the Lord build the house in vain do the labors build" our ability to respond to God (even to ask for His help when we need it) is itself a gift from God.

Likewise in regard to forgiveness of others and love of our enemies, we are told to imitate God. This means that if we wish to forgive other more, it is not just a matter of will power to forgive others, but rather something that flows from our own encounter with God. The movie Pay It Forward comes to mind when I think about the reaction of what happens with God. The characters in the movie go about helping other people in dire straights in response to the way someone else helped them. Likewise, we experience God's love and mercy and kindness and immediately we want to share this with others. Literally, the love of Christ impells us to love. Naturally we can still say no, but the very experience of knowing God's forgiveness provokes us to be forgiving. Just like when we see someone do something good and we too want to share in that goodness and do soemthing good too, when we experience gracious love and forgiveness we tend to want to emulate that. In this way, and as a good preparation for lent, it is truly and only in as much as we enter into the mystery of Jesus's forgiveness of us on the cross that we can then grow in the virtue of forgiving others. Fr. Cantalamessa in his book Life in Christ put it this way (and I'm paraphrasing): some people think the process of the spiritual life is conversion, virtue, salvation when it is really salvation, conversion, virtue. The free gift of salvation is offered by God first. Then we come to believe and then we grow in virtue. Salvation is never something we earn.

We can think of this in another way too. Christ died for us in order to free us from sin and make a convenant with us (ratified at Pentecost as the ultimate expression of the Paschal mystery). We are given salvation so that we can be free from sin (conversion) and live in union with God (by acting virtuously in imitation of God).

As we approach the beginning of lent, let us remember the centrality of the the great gift of salvation worked for us by Christ on the cross. From this gift lets us respond with God's help to God's invitation to imitate the love he has shown us. If we find we do not fully accept God's love, let us pray for the healing we need to allow ourselves to be forgiven and to forgive those who have wounded us in the past. Most of all, let us remember this up-coming time of lent as a joyful invitation to penance... not penance to gain God's love and mercy, but penance as a response to that greatest gift of all. May God help us to forgive others as He forgives us, and may he help us to know His love even more profoundly.

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