Homily: “On Ash Wednesday”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday 2017.

Since September the three Adult Study Groups in our Parish have been reading the book The Process of Forgiveness by Father William Meninger, who is an American monk in the Cistercian order who is alive today and actively teaching. We have been slowly working out way through the book and how Father Meninger presents his thesis that forgiveness is a process, the important part of which is to begin by the help and grace of God.

In a lecture that one can find on the internet, Father Meninger is discussing forgiveness in front of a large group of people at a Roman Catholic parish in Texas. At the beginning of that lecture, he tells the following story, a true story that he had collected during his research for the book:

‘There was a rabbi who was arrested by the Nazis in World War II. He was brought with his wife and mother and father to the concentration camp in Munich. By the end of the war when they freed the remnants of the Jewish prisoners at the concentration camp, his wife had been killed, and his mother and father had been sent to the gas chambers. He along with another group of Jews from the concentration camp were brought to Brooklyn. The reporters were interviewing them. As reporters will do, they were asking him questions like, “How does it feel to have your wife killed, and your mother and father, . . .” and all that sort of thing. And one of the questions they asked him was, “How do you feel about Hitler?” And the rabbi said, “You know, you see these Jews who came over with me,” — they were standing there, a number of them, with him during the interview — “they brought Hitler with them when they came over here from Germany. I refuse to do that, and so I forgave him. That was the only way I could leave him behind.”’

This story indeed speaks for itself. Amid all its teaching, let us see how central forgiveness is to us. Forgiveness allows us to live our lives, and forgiveness allows us to get past, to leave behind, that which has wounded us, hurt us, torn us to pieces, and in many cases, left permanent scars.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the core of being a Christian. It is not an appendage to the Christian life, to be used when necessary and when not necessary, put aside. It is not a tool to carry around in one’s toolbox or kit, brought out when a particular problem needs to the tool of forgiveness, and when the problem is fixed, put back again into the toolbox or kit. Forgiveness is at the core of being a Christian.

So what is the nature of forgiveness? Or more simply still: what is forgiveness? It is these questions that we will be exploring throughout Lent, in the sermons I offer to the Parish. It is a complex topic for which we will seek clarity and simplicity. It is complex because it is another of those terms that has spread into the wider culture and taken roots in that ground, sometimes is perfectly healthy ways but sometimes in unhealthy ways.

As an example of unhealthy understanding of forgiveness, there is the common phrase, “forgive and forget.” That is very wrong, and more than that, it is damaging. Forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Forgiveness has to do with remembering—remembering the hurtful event, the wounding event, so well to understand it completely. Does one think that the Rabbi, in forgiving Hitler for his murders, ever forgot about this tragedy? By no means! Undoubtedly, he lived with this memory for the rest of his life. Forgiveness is not forgetting.

Listen to the words of our Collect, which is a masterpiece of teaching about the nature of forgiveness. “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” God loves all his creatures—each and every one of us—and His love is experienced by His creatures when they turn to Him, which is what being penitent means. “Create and make is us new and contrite hearts.” It is God’s grace that acts before we turn to Him, making our hearts—that is, our deepest selves—new and contrite. “That we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.” God’s grace keeps us and protects us as we become aware of our wounds, our hurts, and the consequences of being wounded, which is why we commit sins against God and our neighbor.

To explore these depths of our soul is difficult, and we avoid doing so because it is too hard. But asking God to be with us during this, asking for His grace, then and only then can we lament and acknowledge—that is, truly understand—our sinfulness, our pride, and just how wretched we are owing entirely to our being wounded, being hurt, being broken and not yet made whole. “That we . . . may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.” Forgiveness is a result. It is a by-product of being made whole through a process of rightly acknowledging that we are wounded, avoiding the game of guilt, allowing ourselves to be a victim just as Jesus allowed Himself to be a victim nailed to the Cross, and finding an appropriate channel for the perfectly normal righteous anger or indignation when they go through this process of forgiveness by the grace of God.

The start of it all is returning to God with all our heart, records the prophet Joel. Return to Him, because He is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. Let us rejoice this Lent in our gracious and merciful God, our transfigured Jesus who shines brighter than the sun with His love for us.  God loves His creatures, He loves us, and His love He has kept patient as we have forgotten Him when we have been wounded. Let us forget Him no more. Let us know again that we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. O that today we would harken to His voice.

The cover image “Jesus in Golgotha” by Theophanes the Cretan is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.