What is forgiveness, really? What happens when forgiveness takes place? Guilt is a reality, an objective force; it has caused destruction that must be repaired. For this reason, forgiveness must be more than a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget. Guilt must be worked through, healed, and thus overcome. Forgiveness exacts a price—first of all from the person who forgives. He must overcome within himself the evil done to him; he must, as it were, burn it interiorly and in so doing renew himself. As a result, he also involves the other, the trespasser, in this process of transformation, of inner purification, and both parties, suffering all the way through and overcoming evil, are made new. At this point, we encounter the mystery of Christ’s Cross. But the very first thing we encounter is the limit of our power to heal and to overcome evil. We encounter the superior power of evil, which w cannot master with our unaided powers.
1, 158-9 Nazareth
Reflection – Well, nice deep stuff here as we wind up the Church year and prepare for Advent to begin tomorrow. ‘Forgiveness exacts a price’ – how are you doing with that? How am I doing with that?
You know, this whole business of forgiveness pulls us quite quickly into very deep waters indeed. Someone injures us, perhaps in a big way, perhaps small. But there is an injury. And immediately, because we are Christians, this lays a burden on us. And this can seem like a further injury – we are the aggrieved party, the innocent (well, at least in this case) one, and yet we’re the ones who have this obligation of forgiveness laid upon us by God. Unfair!
Well, it was unfair for Jesus to have to die on the Cross, too. And it really is at that level – the call to forgive, the duty of forgiveness brings us directly and immediately to an encounter with and a sharing of the Cross of Christ. He suffered without having committed any sin; we are sinners, but in this business of forgiveness we are called to suffer precisely where we have been sinned against.
And so we enter into a real intimacy with Christ. And, in that, a real encounter with our own poverty. As the Pope writes above, we encounter the limits of our power to heal and overcome evil. This is precisely what the modern world has fled from these past centuries. We think we can heal and overcome evil through technical mastery, through economic and political reform, through all manner of human cleverness and creativity.
We have failed, by and large. Oh, there are diseases people no longer die from… but everyone dies still, and most people suffer before they die. The poor are still with us, centuries of economic tinkering and political maneuvering notwithstanding. The evil of humanity and of this world has proven to be ineradicable by human effort alone.
And so we are brought again to Christ and his Cross. Really, when you think of it, we should be sending our enemies, that is the people who have hurt us most deeply, lavish thank you letters and bouquets of roses. They keep driving us to Jesus and to the Cross (darn them!), pushing us to a level of reality where we have no other recourse but Christ.
They do us a great favor, really. Catherine Doherty used to say that she felt like she was climbing the ladder of spiritual life towards God, and whenever she would get tired and flag a bit her enemies would come up the ladder behind her and jab a hat pin in her behind to get her climbing again!
Well, allowing for difference of tone and idiom, that’s pretty much what Pope Benedict is describing in this passage. So… I don’t know how pressing this matter is for you today. Sometimes we aren’t being injured too much at any given time, but it does come to us all one way or another, sooner or later, and usually sooner. Be very mindful, be ‘watchful and wise’ when it does. The moment of injury, of encounter with evil, of call to forgive, of struggle and sorrow—this is the supreme moment of encounter, of intimacy, of union with Christ.