Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Undue Weight of Forgiveness

Anyone who has lived fully within the church has been both blessed and wounded by that relationship, sometimes, it seems, in about equal measure. It is true for any intimate human relationship, of course: friendship, marriage, family. The ability to wound is proportional to the ability to bless.

Some wounds inflicted by the church are irreparable; the injury cannot be undone and, in many cases, the damage cannot be mitigated. The harsh word spoken and received cannot be retracted. The crucial absence cannot later be filled. The broken vow cannot be bridged.

In such cases the church offers not repair, but redemption – the recovery of relationship pawned through intent or negligence, mortgaged through anger or selfishness. Such redemption is costly to both parties, but unduly and disproportionately so to the wounded. The one who sinned must confess and repent. While this is blessedly injurious to the sinful ego, it is, in some sense, merely an acknowledgment of the facts of the matter – “I acted wrongly; I hurt you.” – and a commitment to go and sin no more – “With God’s help I will not do so again.” With this confession and repentance, the burden of that guilt is unduly and unfairly placed fully upon the one already wounded. The pain of the injury is exacerbated by the obligation to forgive and the sure knowledge that only in forgiveness lies healing. How much easier it would seem if the perpetrator were intransigent. Then wounds could be nursed and grudges held with self-righteous justification. But repentance? Repentance adds insult to injury. Now all eyes are on the wounded one, not just in sympathy, but in expectation. Will the victim forgive as Jesus forgave? It is a heavy weight that can be laid down only with a broken heart.

I reflect on these things because, like you, I have wounded, because I have been wounded, and because I have seen those I love wounded. I reflect on these things in the midst of Great Lent, the season of woundedness and forgiveness. Protopresbyter Alexander Schemann writes:

In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated – is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:

"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses..." (Mark 6:14-15)

Then after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!", after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.

Forgiveness entails suffering and a hidden martyrdom, but also healing and exaltation. As St. Paul writes:

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church (Col 1:24).

What can be lacking in the afflictions of Christ? Only the embrace by each wounded one of His suffering by taking up the heavy burden of the cross of another’s repentance and carrying it to the Golgotha of forgiveness.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

[1] Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, Forgiveness Sunday, accessed 3/16/11 at

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