We are now in the midst of our celebration of the Paschal mystery of our Christian faith, which encompasses the suffering and death of the one we call our Savior, and of his resurrection—and ours—into new and unending life with God. Sometimes the beliefs we profess in our creeds can become so familiar to us that they can begin to sound like abstract clichés. As Robert E. Barron, auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Los Angeles, has written in his book The Strangest Way, “Once God has been rendered so transcendent as to be irrelevant, the desacralized world tends to rest in itself, finally indifferent to things spiritual.”
But our creed—in this instance the Apostle’s Creed—brings us up short by locating the heart of our faith, not in abstract doctrines, but in historical events, events that occurred at a certain time, under a particular political regime, and to a specific individual. We say, I believe in God . . . and in Jesus Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried . . . These are not abstract events to which we refer in our creed, but descriptions of the last and terrible moments in the life of the one whom we now revere as Our Lord.
In this article, I will be reflecting upon these events in the context of what the conflicts and sufferings surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meant, and continue to mean, for us and for humanity. Specifically, I will be describing the new covenant that God has now established between himself and the human race. This new covenant, foreshadowed in the Old Testament and realized in the New Testament by, in, and through the person of Jesus, is a covenant of forgiveness. If then, there is to be any such thing in our lives and in our relationships with each other as genuine and liberating forgiveness, we first have to know where we stand before God. Several scripture passages give us some insight, some revelation, into to how all of this business of forgiveness works.
In the first place, genuine Christian forgiveness is not a matter of psychology. That is, it is not rooted primarily in our emotional life or our feelings or in a certain state of mind. Rather, forgiveness in the Christian dispensation is rooted, to use a technical term, in ontology; that is, in a state of existence or, putting it in other words, a new way of standing before God.
Jeremiah the prophet speaks of a “new covenant” that Yahweh promises to establish between himself and his people: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. . . . I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31–34).
In this passage, Yahweh is promising to establish a new kind of relationship with humanity. How this covenant was achieved is described in a passage from the Book of Hebrews: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. . . . he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:7–9). This new covenant that Yahweh has promised, and that Jesus accomplishes in and through his life, death, and resurrection, is a covenant of forgiveness.
The matter of forgiveness can be a tricky and confusing thing. There are, in fact, two ways of giving and receiving forgiveness. The first way is to regard forgiveness in the context of sinfulness and shame. John Shea, author and theologian, comments on this first kind of forgiveness:
In the context of human sinfulness, forgiveness is easily perverted. The unalterable fact is that someone is always on top and someone is always on the bottom. The penitent comes, hat in hand and sin in heart, to say, “Sorry.” He is the sinner, and within the forgiveness game, at a decided disadvantage. . . . The liturgy of this kind of forgiveness forbids spontaneity . . . demands a long-face, halting speech, firm purpose of amendment, and almost-held-back tears. . . . This type of forgiveness, which dotes on human sinfulness, encourages the worst in everybody.
Shea then gives an example of how this kind of forgiveness operates. The example is taken from a story by the English author P. G. Wodehouse. In this particular scene, the character of Sellers, the husband, has apparently been offended by Annette, the wife, who then approaches him to apologize. Wodehouse describes the scene as follows:
When Annette, meek, penitent, with all her claws sheathed, came to him and groveled, he forgave her with a repulsive magnanimity which in a less subdued mood would have stung her to a renewed pugnacity. As it was, she allowed herself to be forgiven and retired with a dismal conviction that from now on he would be more insufferable than ever.
To which Shea responds with a pithy and insightful comment: “Annette and Sellers have no respect for each other.”
In a context such as this, forgiveness not only does not liberate a person, but intensifies resentment between the forgiver and the forgiven. But this is not the way of Jesus. Jesus always forgives us in the second way of forgiving; that is, forgiveness in the context of human goodness and respect for the penitent. The classic example of this kind of forgiveness is described in the story of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son returns home to ask his father’s forgiveness, the father sees him coming from a long way off. He rushes to his son, clasps him in his arms, and kisses him tenderly. Forgiveness in this case is not a put-down of the penitent, but a reaffirmation of the penitent’s worth. Such forgiveness, the kind that Jesus brings into our lives, is rooted in the belief and recognition that all creation is good, and it takes into account the attractiveness and worth of a person. This covenant of forgiveness that Jesus has established in our lives is vastly different from the “righting of wrongs” that we are accustomed to seeing and experiencing in our modern media and in our collective culture of violence and militarism.
Bishop Barron describes these two different ways of forgiving and of restoring order in our relationships with others:
From ancient creation myths to the Rambo and Dirty Harry movies, the principle is the same: order, destroyed through violence, is restored through a righteous exercise of greater violence. Some agent of chaos is corralled and conquered by fighting him (or it) on his own terms and overpowering him. If domination is the problem . . . then a counterdomination is the solution; if gun violence is the problem . . . then a bigger and more skillfully handled gun is the solution. And in these myths, God or the gods are customarily invoked as the sanction for the process.
And then there is Jesus. The terrible disorder of the cross (the killing of the Son of God) is addressed, not through an explosion of divine vengeance, but through a radiation of divine love. When Christ confronts those who contributed to his death, he speaks words, not of retribution, but of reconciliation and compassion. Mind you, the awful texture of the disorder is not for a moment overlooked—that is the integrity of the judgement—but the problem is resolved through nonviolence and forgiveness.
Each one of us is called upon through our baptism to participate with the risen Jesus in this new covenant of forgiveness. If we are to be faithful followers and witnesses of the risen Jesus, we must follow this same principle. Forgiving one another can sometimes feel like a part of us is being asked to die: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24).
We must die to certain patterns and inclinations in our lives; to patterns and inclinations, for example, of self-aggrandizement, distorted pride and self-will, control and domination of others, arrogance, indifference to the sufferings of others, retribution, vengeance, and violence. In other words, we must die to our failure or forgetfulness to recognize that all creation is good because it has now been sanctified by the blood of Christ.
We live under a new covenant. It is a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant between God and his people that has been initiated through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and one that we must now claim for ourselves and live—as best we can—in fidelity to the risen Christ and in faithful witness to the world at large.
Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.