Recently I have been reading God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. I am finding it to be a good read and very enlightening on where we find ourselves in our culture today.
At one point in the book Cardinal George writes about a discussion he had with a group of Chicago priests regarding what they might think is the source of the ills of our time. Some of the priests suggested a forgetting of what sin is or a lack of morals or the breakdown of the family unit. But one young priest suggested not a forgetting of sin but rather a forgetting of how to forgive. The cardinal highlights this comment and carries it further in his book. As a society we have forgotten how to forgive one another and because of this we have become locked in our selves holding on to and even intentionally nursing past hurts and wrongs. Through this we are becoming turned in on ourselves and further isolated from one another. We see this reflected in the growing violence within our society and the growing violence found within our foreign policy. In forgetting how to forgive we become angry people and we are in danger of becoming an angry society.
The readings for the Sunday suggest a different way – a way that leads to life and not to death.
A couple of years ago (through the generosity of some friends as a Christmas gift) I was able to purchase the complete set of St. Augustine’s commentary on the psalms. Now, I try (when time permits) to read Augustine’s thoughts on the psalm being used for the responsorial psalm in the next upcoming Sunday Mass as a way of preparing for the Sunday celebration and also trying to get some homily ideas going. Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 51 is very insightful and beautiful I believe and demonstrates a mature awareness of the human condition. We are all sinners before God and to deny this is a lie both about who we are and also the very nature of God. “Create a clean heart in me, O God” is probably the truest petition any one of us can ever make to God. Augustine cautions that we must avoid the temptation to thrust our own sins “behind our back” and pretend that they do not exist. Rather, we must be honest and humble and keep our sins before our face because it is this humility that God recognizes and heals.
This is how all those of upright heart conduct themselves. Very different are the crooked who consider themselves upright and God perverse; when they do anything bad they rejoice, and when they have to endure anything bad they blaspheme. What is more, when they find themselves in trouble and under the lash, they say from their misshapen hearts, “God, what have I done to you?” the truth is that they have done nothing to God; all the harm they have done is to themselves.
Does this not ring true?
Elsewhere in his commentary the Bishop of Hippo encourages us to, “grip the root of deliberate love.” God’s love for us in not haphazard and inconsistent (when often what passes for love in our world is). God’s love in our life is deliberate, consistent and specific. God wants nothing but what is best for us. In the first reading (Jer. 31:31-34) we hear of this deliberateness of God: The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
To learn forgiveness is to learn to be honest before God, to hold our own sins before ourselves before we judge one another, to petition for a clean heart to be created within us and to trust in the deliberateness of God’s love.
In his commentary Augustine also points out that where sin often seems to thrive in the spectacle (think of rock stars who seem to get their kicks by mocking religion and morality on stage in the glare of the spotlight and the camera); forgiveness is content to be humble and work in the quiet of ones own heart and ones own conscience.
Forgiveness does not need the spectacle because it is sure in itself.
In today’s Gospel (John 12:20-33) some Greeks come to Philip seeking to see Jesus. It could be said that they are seeking a spectacle. It is interesting to note that Jesus never really grants their request. Rather, our Lord, begins a reflection on how the Son of Man is to glorified and therefore how true disciples are to glorify the Son of Man in their own lives. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Who notices the falling of a piece of grain to the ground and dying? This is the exact opposite of the spectacle. Yet, in this humble and unnoticed act life is born which eventually leads to true nourishment.
We need to learn the way of forgiveness. Forgiveness brings life and it liberates from isolation and anger. The readings for this Sunday, the Gospel, the writings of the saints, the disciplines of Lent, the sacrament of reconciliation all help to teach us this healing truth.