Some weeks earlier Marie Fatayi-Williams, a Nigerian woman whose 26-year-old son (the hope and pride of her life) died in the London terrorist bombings, prayed aloud at his funeral service in Westminster Cathedral, "Lord, take Anthony as a sacrificial lamb for peace to reign in our world." As she forgave his murderers, her impassioned plea for peace over BBC television touched viewers worldwide.
Such acts of heroic forgiveness by ordinary people in the face of great personal tragedy stand in stark contrast to the hatred and revenge which motivate the terrorists. Without any way excusing their horrible crimes, it requires greatness of heart and God-like generosity to forgive the evil-doers.
Forgiveness has been described as godly. The Son of God became flesh, lived among us and gave His life to gain forgiveness for our sins. As He lay dying on the cross He prayed for his killers, "Father forgive them". And during His life He repeatedly stressed the importance of forgiving. The Parables of The Unforgiving Servent and the Prodigal Son, as well as the incidences such as the adulterous woman and the sinful woman in Simon's house, all underline the primary need in our lives for mercy and forgiveness rather than condemnation and revenge. In fact He leaves us with no choice; we must forgive, not just once but 77 times if need be.
How true indeed are the words of the poet, William Blake, "It is easier to forgive an enemy than a friend". Because of our smallness of mind and heart we find it difficult to forgive an angry word, an unfriendly stare, a small insult or loss of face, especially from someone close to us! We are too proud to make the first move towards reconciliation but allow hatred and bitterness, like an unseen cancer, to continue to eat away and destroy our peace of mind and our relationships.
Jesus warns that in such a state we are unworthy to worship God:"Leave your gift there in front of the altar, go make peace with your brother/sister and then come back and offer your gift to God". Only then will it be acceptable.
Perhaps Jesus' greatest act of forgiveness was not praying for His enemies on the cross but forgiving His closest friends and followers who had deserted Him in His hour of greatest need. He had begged, "Stay here and keep watch with me" but they "all left him and ran away"(Matt 26). Yet when He appeared to them after the Resurrection, in their state of guilt and confusion, there was no repromand, no "How could you...?" Instead there was only a gentle greeting, "Fear not; it is I... Peace be with you" (Matt 28).
This is what He continues to ask from each of us; to forgive and let go of past hurts. Not easy, in our human pride and self-righteousness, but the only way forward, for 'without forgiveness there is no future' (Archbishop Desmond Tutu).
- Bro. Columba Gleeson
(A De La Salle Brother who worked in schools in Sarawak from 1958-1987. From 1988-1997, he was the editor of Today's Catholic and was also involved in faith formation and catechetical programmes in the Archdiocese. He now works with the Brothers in Belfast, Northern Ireland.)