“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed…. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
(Elie Wiesel, Night)
How can it be possible to forgive if we cannot forget? Hurtful memories have an amazing ability to endure over time. They can be difficult to let go of. Some like Elie Wiesel, rather than trying to forget past injustices, think it necessary to remember those traumatic experiences and learn from them. How though, if our lives are shaped by the constant reminder of past hurts, can forgiveness take root?
Forgiveness seems to go against the often understandable desire we have for retribution. It can be so hard to turn the other cheek and to pray for our persecutors as the Lord commands. Forgiving one’s enemies is too idealistic for some people. To them, it is impossible in practice, bearing no connection to the cold and brutal reality of evil. This cannot be the way for Christians. When we speak of forgiveness, mercy and love, we must believe they have some real life application; even in the darkness of a concentration camp. It is then most of all perhaps that Christ’s words need to effect reality. If they do not, they are merely words on a page devoid of all meaning.
Christians are commissioned to preach that such forgiveness is possible. It is the story of Christ’s righteous suffering. Today, Divine Mercy Sunday, marks the canonisation of John Paul II who forgave his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca. Saints are those who have spent their lives trying to be like Jesus. The late Pope forgave just as Jesus forgave while hanging on the cross. In this saintly act, John Paul shows how forgiveness demands far more of a person than the desire for retribution. Forgiveness draws upon the deepest reality of a person’s being, calling to mind not only the nature of one’s own existence but that of their persecutor also, setting it squarely in relation to God.
There is some truth to the saying ‘to err is human; to forgive is divine.’ Absolute forgiveness of otherwise unforgivable acts is a Christian concept. It is something the world cannot offer. Hope in forgiveness of this sort is a plea for God to intervene in our misery – not necessarily the misery of injustices suffered but the paralysis wrought by an unforgiving heart. The power to forgive sins given to the disciples in today’s Gospel is an extension of Jesus’ own mission, reconciling people with God and with each other. It is not a denial of past wrongs but an enveloping of them in the abundance of God’s mercy.
That is not to say that forgiving is easy, especially given the fact that past hurts plague us endlessly. Only in God is it possible to forgive, wounded as we are by our past. Indeed it is precisely because we can dare to forgive, though burdened by the weight of troubled memories and injustices suffered, that makes forgiveness the divine thing that it is.
Gospel reflection for The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday) – Year A (John 20:19-31)