Enroll in the School of Forgiveness

To err is human; to forgive, Divine. The old adage about God’s mercy and our frailty provides a tempting means of letting ourselves off the hook when it comes to forgiving others. After all, as “mere humans,” we’re weak, fragile and subject to every whim, distraction and opportunity for self-indulgence with which we’re presented. According to this line of thought, “I’m only human,” becomes a defense for wrongdoing that (if we’re honest) each of us has employed at one time or another. Doing what is right and just at all times is impossible for us, so we might as well not worry about striving too hard to hit the mark. As for forgiveness: it’s a goal, but not one we’re expected to consistently attain because some things are just too awful to forgive (human weakness, after all). All of the “tough stuff,” the hard things in life, and those that require a lot of extra effort – those are things God can do, but not us “puny humans.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the gift the Church gives us as a call to self-reflection and repentance – and to the realization that we are to strive toward the Divine. It is the Forgivenessbeginning of the Lenten season, and an opportunity to truly walk with Jesus as He makes His way toward the Cross. For Eastern Catholics, this season actually began two days earlier. Monday marked the first day of The Great Fast (as it is called in the East), and it begins, in a way, by refuting the adage about forgiveness being strictly God’s province.

The day before The Fast begins is known as Forgiveness Sunday, wherein we remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and the beginning of the path toward salvation. Vespers are celebrated in the evening, and end with a Service of Mutual Forgiveness, in which everyone – from the priest, to the altar servers, to the people in the pew – approach each other individually to ask for and receive forgiveness with these words:

Forgive me, a sinner.
God Himself forgives you.

It is often difficult for us to “work up the courage” to examine our consciences and “enter the box” to confess our sins. Yet the experience of God’s grace, and the relief of letting go of the dead weight of sin that gets in the way of experiencing true love and peace, calls us back again and again. Entering into the Holy Mystery of Confession is essential for our spiritual (and general) health year round, but it’s especially important at the start of, and throughout, The Fast.

Just as important is our willingness to let go of our pride and face each other in a stance of humility and openness: to ask for forgiveness, and be willing to forgive. Neither is easy. Depending upon the ways we’ve hurt others – or been hurt by them – it can feel equally as impossible to ask forgiveness as it is to grant it. This is why the Fast is so important for us, not simply as a spiritual discipline, or the fulfillment of a requirement. Self-denial – breaking out of the cocoon of self-centeredness – is the introductory course in the School of Forgiveness. It’s a course we all need to repeat again and again, but the Teacher is patient and willing to tutor us in the ways of love and surrender.

“To err” is human, inasmuch as our inclination toward sin is our inheritance from the fall of our first parents. Yet to forgive is human, too. To forgive is to be authentically human; humanity made possible by the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. Jesus, Son of God, took flesh and became human so that we could become like God.

If it’s been a month – or it’s been years – since you “stepped into the box,” stop where you are and examine your conscience. Go to confession at the first opportunity you can. Then examine your conscience again and forgive those who have hurt you. If you can do it in person, go to them in humility and love. If that’s not possible, forgive them in your heart and pray to God for them. Revise the adage and give it new meaning in your life: To err is human; to forgive, authentically human through the grace of the Divine Savior.

Forgive…because God Himself forgives you.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

What’s the difference?

The Gospel reading for today (Mk 1:40-45), the last Sunday before Lent begins, provides a direct link to what Pope Francis discusses in his Message for Lent 2015.

While the title of the Message is “Make Your Hearts Firm,” Francis writes from his greatest concern over a “globalization of indifference. … a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.” The whole salvation message, that Jesus came, was incarnate, lived, breathed, taught, and healed, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead, leads us to believe that God is not indifferent to us and to our world.

In today’s Gospel reading, a man with leprosy essentially says to Jesus, “if you care, you can make a difference in my life.” Jesus was not indifferent; he was moved with pity and reached out his hand – a movement of caring, compassion, personal risk, and desire to make a difference in the life of another person. “Christians are those who let God clothe them with goodness and mercy, with Christ, so as to become, like Christ, servants of God and others.” (n. 1)

indifference3The world is big, her problems are many, and with so much information instantly available to us, it can be overwhelming. “What difference can I make?” I ask myself. As I write this, it is snowing yet again. Each individual snowflake might seem insignificant, but the combined effect of the snowflakes makes mountains of snow – stops traffic, bends trees, and sags roofs – and who is to say that it isn’t just one more snowflake that would cause the tree or roof to break? While the effects of snow might be destructive (if not merely inconvenient!) it provides a good example of the impact of the efforts of each of us. We make a difference every time we choose to act with intentionality – with compassion.

The call to Consecrated Persons this year is to live the present with passion. Passion is as far from indifferent as one can get! In this Lenten Message, Pope Francis says, “how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!” (n. 2)

How do I witness the indifference of society? Do I feel that my efforts are of no use and fall into the safety of indifference? “As individuals too, we are tempted by indifference. Flooded with new reports and troubling images of human suffering, we often feel our complete inability to help. What can we do to avoid being caught up in this spiral of distress and powerlessness?” Pope Francis asks (n. 3). With this question, he offers us three answers:

  • First is the call to prayer. To pray is not to do nothing! To truly pray for the needs of my brothers and sisters means that I have allowed their need to enter into my heart, that I recognize an injustice, that I acknowledge our interconnectedness – our communio.
  • Second is the call to action. “We can help by acts of charity,” the Pope tells us (n. 3). We cannot solve every problem on our own, but we can help and contribute to organizations that work for the good of our sisters and brothers both near and far. During Lent, what if I decide what to give out instead of what to give up?
  • Third is the call to conversion. The recognition that members of my family, my human family, are in need, “reminds me of the uncertainty of my own life and my dependence on God and my brothers and sisters.” (n. 3) This balance of needing both God and others is to keep my feet on the ground – I am not the savior of the world, nor am I the savior of myself!

I am limited and needy and therefore can find that vulnerable place of communion with those whose need might be a little more obvious – the person with “leprosy” who crosses my path and says to me, “if you care, you can make a difference in my life!” The choice, to not be indifferent, to make a difference is enough to change the world one person, one encounter, at a time. What will you give out this Lent?

Sr. Kelly Connors teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online.