"So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." Not the words of a wimp or a phrase from one who has no experience with hatred, intolerance, misogyny, racism or any of the long list of human weakness, sin and flaws, the meaning of Christ's words cannot be misinterpreted.
In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis, long-term atheist and scholar, writes about forgiveness the way he does of all of the Christian virtues: Baldly, practically and wisely. Without the sentiment and superficiality we so often read and hear.
"Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick’, they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’
In thinking about what to write about today, forgiveness comes to mind for a few reasons. Lent will be here is just a few weeks, Christ's words about forgiveness are strident, even impossible, and the animus of each side of the political divide begs for grace and amnesty.
- I'll start with the last, the political divide because it's personal and unpleasant as is any time we admit that we are part of the problem. I have a presence on social media because of my writing-the Twitter and Facebook pages are a vehicle for book sales. I became aware that my thoughts and opinions about those on the 'other side' were every bit as judgmental and intolerant as the vitriol I see when I go to the news feed page. The only difference? Mine was unexpressed. I'm Catholic so I went to Confession, aware quite suddenly that I was part of the problem, significantly so, in fact. Either we follow Christ-his words, or we don't. There isn't any way to do it half-way or sort of, there are no excuses.
- Christ's words today and in the previous Sunday Gospels as we approach Lent "raise the bar" as the Priest declared in his homily last night. "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." There is no way to mitigate, explain. There are no 'buts. ' Here is the entire passage of that entire paragraph which ends with that shocking command:
"You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
- In a few days, Lent begins. A chance for me, you and for each one of us to pursue a new goal- the most important of our lives. Love- even those with whom we disagree, especially those who look at us as their enemy. May these forty days infuse us with grace.
I consider CS Lewis one of the many people from whom I have received wisdom. Like me, he was at one time an atheist. But Lewis' profound search for truth led him to Christ. Suddenly he was filled with faith. And then compelled to write about truth- Christ. The entire text of Lewis's statement beginning with forgiveness as a 'lovely idea' is here:
One of the most unpopular of the Christian virtues is laid down in the Christian rule, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Because in Christian morals ‘thy neighbor’ includes ‘thy enemy’, and so we come up against this terrible duty of forgiving our enemies.
Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick’, they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’
So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture. I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you what I could do- I can do precious little-I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms.