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Forgive, For Eucharist's Sake: A Lenten Reflection | Carl E. Olson

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"To err is human, to forgive, divine." This well-known phrase, Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, captures two of the greatest mysteries of the Christian life: "That man, being what he is, can rebel against God; and the doctrine that God, being what he is, can forgive man."

It also captures the essence of the fifth petition of the Our Father: "And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Like the rest of the greatest prayer of the Christian Faith, it is deceptively simple. It’s very easy to pass over it and to think, "I know what they means: unless we forgive others, we won’t be forgiven." If so, we flirt with mistakenly turning it into a bargain, or into a sort of contract: I do this, this happens to me.

But being a child of God is not about bargaining or entering into a business contract. It is about authentic love and participating in a supernatural covenant. The difference between the two is immense. A business contract is a legal agreement that outlines how services are rendered and paid for. Complete strangers can make contracts with one another—and can fulfill those contracts perfectly without ever knowing the other party.

But a covenant is a sacred and intimate union in which those involved give themselves completely to one another: body, soul, heart, and mind. If we break a contract, we can expect legal repercussions; if we break a covenant, we rupture a relationship.

Put another way, and in the context of Lent, it is the difference between doing something out of obligation and doing it out of love. Do we give up a certain food or activity during Lent out of a sense of obligation, or out of love? Are we motivated by the desire to look good in the eyes of others, or by the desire to more deeply know and love God? Are we fulfilling legal obligations owed to God or are we pursuing a relationship with our Father?

Seen in this light, the petition takes on a different shape. Far more than a balancing act, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "forgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and of men with one another" (CCC 2844). Forgiveness is at the heart of the new covenant, for without God’s forgiveness, man would remain alienated from Him, and without our forgiveness of others we would not have communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So forgiveness is always a gift from God; without His grace, we cannot forgive. This is why forgiveness is intimately linked to the fatherhood of God, something that can even be seen in the words of the Psalmist: "Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him" (Ps. 103:13).

There are two well-known parables of Jesus that articulate, in concrete terms, the Our Father’s exhortation. One is the parable of the merciless servant (Matt. 18:23-35), in which a slave who owes an unpayable sum of money to his mast is forgiven of that debt because of the master’s compassion.

But that same slave then demands that a fellow slave who owes him a small sum pay it immediately or be thrown in prison. He fails completely to comprehend or consider the example of his master, whose gracious compassion far exceeds the demands of justice and the law. The master, angered at the slave’s evil action, throws him back into prison and punishes him again. Jesus states, "So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." In the end, these relationships are familial. They are covenantal, not merely contractual.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is even more familiar to us. The focus of commentaries and homilies is often on the son, who spurns his loving father and sets out to live a selfish life of pleasurable irresponsibility.

But it is the love and mercy of the long-suffering father that is most striking. Having every right to be angry with his wayward son and to reject him, he instead runs to greet him upon his return home, embracing and kissing him even though he is in rags and covered with filth. And when the insolent "good" brother complains about this warm welcome he is met with perfect love: "My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours." The prodigal son, having been humbled and now filled with love, is restored to communion with his father.

His brother, however, does not even address his father as "Father," indicating his lack of love. Although outwardly faithful, he severs that communion because he has been living in a contractual, not covenantal, relationship.

The ultimate goal of forgiveness is communion with God and with one another. It is no coincidence that this petition flows from the petition asking for daily bread. As we saw last week, one meaning of the fourth petition is a recognition and desire for the Eucharist—for Holy Communion. There are numerous connections to be made. Christ is the incarnation of forgiveness and to receive him in Eucharist, is to be flooded with the reality of forgiveness. In the Eucharist we receive the very body and blood of Christ, given for us on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.

Receiving Holy Communion cleanses us of venial sins and helps to keep us from committing mortal sins. As well, "asking forgiveness is the prerequisite for both the Eucharistic liturgy and personal prayer" (CCC 2631). The Eucharist provides the grace needed to forgive others and to embrace them as brothers and sisters even if our feelings and memories remain hurt by their actions.

Forgiveness, Romano Guardini writes in his classic work The Lord, "is a part of something much greater than itself: love. We should forgive, because we should love." The covenantal communion that man has with God through Jesus Christ flows from the Communion of the Trinity, which is the "source and criterion of truth in every relationship" (CCC 2845).

We will err—and others will err against us—because we are human. But we will also forgive, for we share in the divine life of God, Who has forgiven us and made us His children.

(This article was originally published in the March 28, 2004 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

Related IgnatiusInsight.com articles and columns:

Our Daily, Everlasting Bread: A Lenten Reflection | Carl E. Olson
Benedict and the Eucharist: On the Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis | Carl E. Olson
The Meaning and Purpose of the Year of the Eucharist | Carl E. Olson
Eucharistic Adoration: The Hour That Makes My Day | Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
The Doctrine (and the Defense) of the Eucharist | Carl E. Olson
For "Many" or For "All"? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | James V. Schall, S. J.
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord | Anthony E. Clark
The Biblical Roots of the Mass | An Interview with Thomas J. Nash

Carl E. Olson
is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, and two children. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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