The forgiveness of sins, said the Fathers of the Church, is a greater miracle than the creation of the universe. That seems exaggerated, when considered from our perspective. A Catholic does something he feels ashamed of, hies himself to Confession, goes in the little room with the priest, and comes out a few minutes later. Sometimes he stops for a quick penance prayer in the pew. Sometimes he’s off like a shot to his next Saturday afternoon appointment. To the naked eye, it’s hard to see something akin to God hurling the Andromeda Galaxy into being.
And yet, seen from God’s perspective, this is what it’s all about. The birth at Bethlehem, the life at near subsistence level (particularly compared to our comfiness in Millennial Suburbia), the years of obscurity and hard manual labor, the temptation in the wilderness, the long days and months and years wandering and preaching with nowhere to lay His head, the growing hostility, the whispers, the friendship of Judas draining away and leaving only the husk of a smile behind, the incomprehension of the apostles, and finally, the betrayal, arrest, beatings, crowning with thorns, nakedness, excruciating pain, gasping for breath, isolation, abandonment and last wrenching moments of agony: it was all to purchase that miracle of forgiveness poured out in that little room.
In short, as C.S. Lewis has remarked, it cost God nothing to create the universe. It cost him Crucifixion to take away the sins of the world. Those who talk or think of the forgiveness of sins as a sort of magical wave of the hand that is accomplished with a little ooga booga and sprinkling somebody with magic water simply have no conception of what Christians are talking about when they speak of the forgiveness of sins.
But why doesn’t God just pronounce us “forgiven” and have done with it? He’s God, isn’t he? If he can speak being into existence, why can’t he just speak forgiveness into existence without all this blood, smoke, and dust in the drama?
The answer of the Tradition is that forgiveness is like epoxy. It has two ingredients and they have to fuse to work. God has to be willing to forgive, but we need to be creatures capable of receiving the forgiveness. Our natures were deformed by the Fall, and the more deformed we became, the less wee became creatures capable of receiving precisely the thing we need: the forgiveness and the life of God.
That bit about the “life of God” is important. Because forgiveness is only step one of what God intends to give us. The point of the gospel is not merely to bring our account balance back out of the red and settle things at $0 in the bank with nothing owed. Rather, it is to make us into “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Forgiveness of sins without divinization of the human person is just not in the cards in the Christian picture of salvation. We are not merely saved from sin, but to communion with the Blessed Trinity.
That’s why God opted not to remain up in Heaven and keep things nice and disincarnate. As Athanasius put it, he became man that man might become God. He assumed our humanity, not merely that he might put the sins of the flesh to death, but so that we might share completely in His divine life. It is this astonishing generosity to our radically unworthy species that the Exultet marvels at each Easter: “O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam, that won for us so great a salvation!” In the mystery of God’s incredible generosity we find that God actually gives us something better than we would have received had we never sinned. It’s as if we robbed a man’s house and then found him chasing us down the street, insisting on giving us the jewelry we missed and begging us to marry his daughter and join the family. It brings to life in an astonishing way Jesus’ strange counsel that if somebody takes your coat, give him your cloak as well. God gave us his Son and we killed Him. As our reward, he gives us eternal bliss. No wonder Paul said that the wisdom of God is foolishness to this world. It barely escapes being foolishness even to those who believe it.
It is in light of this incredible and crazy generosity that the command to forgive sins willingly must be seen. The operative word here is “willingly”. It’s a word with no discernible upper limit. Of course, as we saw last week, we are in no immediate danger of bumping our heads on the ceiling. Merely acknowledging the command to forgive is often all we can muster. Yet such is the goodness and condescension of God to our weak state that gritting our teeth and saying, “I forgive that jerk” is gladly reckoned by Him as “willing” (much like a parent accepts the efforts of a child to be conciliatory even when the kid is still kicking his sister under the table for taking his toy). We have to start somewhere and God will humble Himself to accept our barest minimal attempt at forgiveness, so long as it is a real attempt.
But God is always looking at us and saying, “You are not nearly as happy as I intend you to be!” And so, he is, as George MacDonald says, “Easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” Our forgiveness needs to grow, to become more willing, more generous, more joyful at the good of the other. In a word, it must become more Godlike, more like He Who commends his love to us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
As it happens, we Catholics have been given by God an endless fountain of grace where we get to see this poured out. It’s called the sacrament of Reconciliation. I remember my first experiences of it as though it were yesterday. I’d known various self-described “recovering Catholics” who loved to brag about how “guilty” confession made them feel. I never understood that, because I was raised completely outside the Church and I could tell you all about guilt. Then I encountered the sacrament—and the whining of ex-Catholics made even less sense. It was a miracle (literally)! Imagine: a place where you can go and pour out all the poison and every lead weight in your guts from all the filthy despicable crap you had been carrying around for years. And when it was all over, you didn’t get some Freudian telling what was wrong with you while giving you nothing whatsoever to help. You didn’t get somebody saying, “You sicken me! Get out of my sight!” You got a Father putting his hands on your head and saying, with a voice like the waters of the sea washing your whole dead past away, “I absolve you of all your sins. Go in peace.” It didn’t—couldn’t—cost a thing and it was the most precious thing in the world. And more than the forgiveness (which was enough!) was the fact that, for God, forgiveness was not enough. He insisted on pouring out grace so that as you walked out of the confessional, you were not just forgiven but made stronger with his divine life so that you could do better next time. He was proactive, that One. He forgave willingly—lavishly—not grudgingly. It was like He loved us or something!
In this sacrament, I saw not only God’s forgiveness, but also the tirelessness of our priests, modeling what the work of mercy is to look like. I remember asking a couple of priests about what it felt like to sit there week after week, month after month, year after year as the endless litany of human failure, wretchedness and loss paraded in an out of that little box. It had occurred to me that, were it me, I would go crazy having to listen to the same endless round of repetitive sins and moral wreckage. I know that, in my own life, my confessions are boringly consistent, dwelling on the same besetting sins and only occasionally being spruced up by some venture into fresh and appalling territory. What, I wondered, must it be like to have to subject yourself to the torrent of sewage and, when you have heard it all yet again, reply with mercy and a prayer of grace?
One priest told me, to my amazement, that he never remembers a thing once he exits the confessional—a grace he chalked up to his ordination. He said he is at perfect peace. I asked if he ever felt awkward talking to people whose sins he knows all about. Again he replied that he could not remember their sins if he tried. That was striking. What was even more striking were the words of another priest who said that he found confession the most beautiful sacrament it was his honor to celebrate.
“People come in and they are absolutely genuine. They tell the truth about their sins as best they can and then, when the words of absolution are pronounced, they go out with the mask taken away and their own true face revealed.” It was a point he insisted on: that sin is the mask and Jesus Christ the true face of each person.
That truth lies behind the Church’s insistence on forgiving sins willingly. Far too many of us (me included) think of forgiveness as “pretending a jerk isn’t a jerk”. It’s closer to the mark to say that forgiveness is “Realizing that sin does not name us, Christ does.” Ever since He joined himself to our fallen humanity, took it down to the grave with him, and raised it up all the way to the right hand of the Father in glory, he made himself, not our sin, the most fundamental fact about the human person. No matter how many sins we commit, we cannot pile them up high enough to touch Him as He sits at the right hand of the Father in His glorified humanity. Even (in fact, especially) our murder of Him had no power to stop His love for us. Now He, not our sin, is the last Word on who the human person is.
Because of this, He has a toehold in each soul, even the most despicable. That doesn’t mean “Automatic Heaven for All!” It means that we can hand the sinner (sometimes an impenitent sinner) over to Jesus in the hope that He (who is closer to them than we could ever hope to be) will transform their fallen human nature with his divinized human nature. As we do that, we share a bit more in His divinized human nature and do something that is simply not possible for us to do apart from Him: forgive offenses willingly.
(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).