We cannot – humanly speaking – make up for the wrong we have done. If I strike someone, they feel pain, perhaps rejection or aggression. These things are forever part of their experience. I can say, and mean it when I say, “I am sorry.” The physical reality doesn’t change.
The Seventh Commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one’s neighbor. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2401), and the virtue of commutative justice requires the restitution of stolen goods to their owner. (CCC. No. 2412) But can we ever completely restore and repair the loss inflicted by our selfishness? Is anything the same even when later we have had our belongings returned?
Into this dilemma of human weakness, God introduced forgiveness. He revealed, by the divine act of the Redemption in Christ, a way to reverse the otherwise irreversible. By making Himself ‘an offering for sin,’ Jesus Christ ‘atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.’ (CCC. No. 615) By His Passion, Christ delivered us from Satan and sin. His grace restores what sin had damaged in us. (CCC. No. 1708)
Belief in the forgiveness of sins is an article of Faith. At the end of the Apostles Creed, we profess: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
The sacrament of Baptism washes away sin, (both Original Sin and personal sins). It is this sacrament which first unites us with Christ, who died for our sins. (CCC. No. 977) But the Risen Christ established another Sacrament (Penance, Confession, Reconciliation), when He gave the Holy Spirit to His apostles and conferred on them the divine power to forgive sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” (Jn 20:22-23)
Baptism and frequent integral Confession makes it possible for us to be forgiven. While restitution, to the best of our ability, is important, the only true solution to the hurt caused by our offenses is God’s disposition to forgive.
Forgiveness therefore is a divine attribute, but one which we humans, nonetheless, are invited to imitate. Living in union with Christ by sanctifying grace, and acting virtuously by forgiving, we also can contribute, in some way, to the work of restoration and redemption. We can begin – at least spiritually - to ‘fix’ what sin has damaged. Perhaps the first repair work happens in our hearts when we say, “I forgive you.” We finally let go of something that otherwise remains as a constant affliction.
When we do this the wound from being injured is transformed; it becomes a pledge and sign of God’s redeeming victory. Recall that the Lord Jesus when He had risen and appeared to the disciples, still had His wounds. (“Then he said to Thomas, ‘put your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and put it into My side.’” Jn 20:27) Now these wounds had become the proof of His love.
When I say, with Christ, “Father, forgive them…” (Lk 23:34), I enter into a divine act which is forgiveness. This forgiveness does not minimize the hurt, the crime, the outrage of the offense. It does not remove the wound, or cause the scars to disappear. It only begins to identify my suffering with the suffering which Jesus endured on that Good Friday. He was the completely Innocent Lamb who, having joined Himself with humanity in the mystery of the Incarnation, died for sins that were not His own, and He forgave.
In the Our Father, a prayer that Jesus taught His disciples in the Gospel, we strike a deal with God. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do you see what we are agreeing to? We ask God for that forgiveness which only became possible by the love of Christ – a love that greatly surpasses justice. And in a “quid pro quo,” – a “this for that,” we pledge to be Christ-like. It is against the human grain to forgive. It is a share in the divine life.
Father, Forgive Them
by Richard John Neuhaus
First Things, March 2000
“Father, forgive them.” For whom does he pray forgiveness? For the leaders of his own people, a fragile, frightened establishment that could not abide the threat of the presence of a love so long delayed. For pitiable Pilate, forever wringing his hands forever soiled. For the soldiers who did the deed, who wielded the whip, who drove the nails, who thrust the spear, it all being but a day’s work on foreign assignment, far from home. And for us he asks forgiveness, for we were there.
On the Sunday that begins Holy Week we read the Passion story and come to the part where the crowd shouts, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” That part is read by the entire congregation, for we were there. The old spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, we answer. Yes, we were there when we crucified our Lord.