Right at the beginning of Lent we keep a feast which is t h e d a y o f f o r g i v e n e s s. This day of forgiveness we must prepare for, because it is not easy for us to forgive, and at times it is even more difficult to beg for forgiveness and to accept forgiveness. We must prepare for it in the course of this week, not only by preparing ourselves to receive forgiveness which we always take for granted, but also be ready to give it. Last week’s Gospel spoke to us about the prodigal son; in this Gospel we saw how the father, betrayed by his younger son, abandoned by him, ruled out of his life, was still the living father who, day after day, waited for his son to come back.
This is a first thing which is essential in this mystery of forgiveness; we must wait with an open heart, with a longing heart for those who need forgiveness from us, to come. But there is more to it. The Gospel tells us, that the father saw his son from afar off, and he ran, and he fell on his shoulder and he embraced him, and kissed him. This also is a lesson for us: we must not only stand, waiting for those who have offended, or harmed, or wronged us in any way, we must not wait for them to come: we must long for their coming, but not in order that they should accept the humiliation of asking for forgiveness, but in order to rush towards them to meet them halfway or beyond, to meat them at the moment we only perceive that they are moving towards us and not away from us, and we must receive them with the exalted joy of the father, with the joy and tenderness he showed to his prodigal son.
It is not enough to wait, we must go forward; and who can go forward if not the one who is right, or imagine he is, and who therefore can accept it, while the one who feels in the wrong will find it so difficult to come, because he expects humiliation from us instead of love, because this is what life teaches us day after day.
And then, the story of the Prodigal Son teaches us something more; the son was making his way to his father, ready to beg for forgiveness, and to accept forgiveness on any terms; he was prepared to confess his sin, but also to be accepted no longer as a son, but as a hireling, as a servant in the house. How often our friends who have offended against us come shyly to us, ready to accept crumbs of friendship, crumbs of forgiveness and affection, how often these friends are prepared to accept less than what they possessed before if only they could be admitted again to be near us at least, if not within our hearts, they would be already happy and grateful.
But this is not what the father of the prodigal did; when the son had only begun to say that he was unworthy, he stopped him, because he knew that this boy could only be his boy and his son, nothing less and nothing different, an unworthy son, yes, but not a worthy servant, in the same way in which our friends can have been unworthy friends, they can be nothing else to us than friends, because if we gave them our heart at one moment, our heart must belong to them for ever.
And the story of the Gospel tells us that the father turned to his servants and commanded them to bring the old robe which the young man had worn and to give it back to him: not a new dress, not something brilliant and glorious which he would perceive as a reward for his coming back, but something familiar and simpler the old robe he had discarded when he left the house. And when the young man put it back, had it on his shoulder, he did not feel the awkwardness of new clothes, the awareness of a new situation, of a new relationship, of a new position in the house; he was back in the old situation, he could look round and see that all these days and years in the far country was nothing but a nightmare that had gone; he was back where he had left it, life could begin where it had stopped, there was no need of recreating a relationship: it was there.
And the father does more: he gives him his ring, his signet ring, the ring by which any document, any letter could be sealed, the ring that gave one power over the owner of the ring; one could write anything and seal it with this ring, and the man could not back out of it. To this young man who had dealt in such ugly, cruel, hard, irresponsible way towards him, the father gives power over his life, over his goods, over his fame, over everything, and what for? Why? — For the sole reason that this young man has come back to his senses and came back.
That is the way in which we should receive each other, meet one another, not on new terms, give one another back the old dress of friendship, of intimacy, of love, of comradeship that was discarded when something better was in view, and give back all the trust, all the confidence whatever the risks because if one has come back, he is worthy of being back, received as though nothing has happened.
Next Sunday, the Sunday of Forgiveness, many will come to us and ask to be forgiven, some for things so trivial, so unimportant that it will almost be difficult to forgive because we feel there is nothing to forgive, and yet, the one who comes, feels perhaps because he is more perceptive than us, and perhaps for some other reasons, he feels that there is something, perhaps a film between us and him, and he needs this film to be torn, he needs this distance to disappear, he needs closeness and total acceptance without a shade of awkwardness to be there between us. Give forgiveness, give it generously, with an open heart, not saying, ‘It is worthy to forgive you, you have done nothing’; but simply showing that affection is unimpaired, that friendship is there full and perfect, and that it can grow into something greater.
Others will come whom we perceive as offender; let us not simply wait for their humiliation and give a cold word of forgiveness that will not express the true feelings of our hearts and the true directedness, renewed directedness of our will, let us ponder and see whether we can forgive. And if we can, let us do so, but if we cannot, let us beg the offender to forgive us for the coldness of our heart, for the narrowness of our heart, for the fact that we cannot give what is expected from us.
Let us be frank and true, and let us ask the one who thought he was an offender recognise in us another offender, and let us discover that we must tolerate each other, we must put up with each other’s weaknesses and inability to be Christians. And then also let us not confuse forgiving and the words of forgiveness, which we pronounce because if we have forgiven, it must be for good and for ever. How often we forgive for a moment, until the next offence reawakes in us all the old grudges, causes us again to remember everything that was wrong in the past. Let us remember that a thing forgiven is a thing that has gone by, and cannot be called back into existence even if it costs us a great deal; whatever the cost, we must pay the cost of our coldness and our inability to forgive but never get it out of the other.
Do not try to forget, forgetting is not forgiving, forgetting is an easy way of a light-minded way of doing things; we must be able to remember, but to remember the wrong that occurred in the past as the glorious, occasion which made it possible for love to triumph. If we forget, we are back in the false innocency where we started our wrong relationship; if we remember and yet wholeheartedly love, if we remember and yet are inseparable in the mystery of mutual acceptance, we have overcome evil, because evil is there, chucked and vanquished.
Let us prepare ourselves to this meeting of forgiveness, let us go through the names and the faces of all the people whom we know and ask ourselves, ‘Is there anyone whom I have slighted or offended in any way? and use this week and not only the few hours of the next Sunday to put things right at any cost; certainly at the cost of the humiliation of our pride and self-sufficiency, but also let us think of everyone who may come asking to be forgiven and till the ground of our heart, break this stony heart which is in us, make it into a heart of flash so that whenever we can see one needing forgiveness, our heart should be open and warm, and that he should find shelter in our love and joy and renewal, in our relationship. Amen.
6 March 1967