Forgiveness: Hope towards the Origin – for Living Lent
Fr. José Granados, dcjm
The pandemic has left us little desire to look to the future, which is feared to be complex. That is why hope is so necessary today, because it gives us a future in the midst of trials. But the pandemic has also brought wounds that affect our past. It is difficult for us to look to the future, not only because it is uncertain, but also because we are weighed down by the experience of wounds. Will we be able to greet and embrace each other again without fear being aroused? Psychologist Massimo Recalcati asks this question with regard to going back to school: “how can one restore trust in the other, after having seen the other as a potential death threat? “. An Italian journalist put it this way: “the pandemic will only be over when can we no longer remember it”.
All this tells us that hope, in order to expand the future, needs to regenerate the past. For the past can drive us to despair when it traps us and prevents us from looking ahead. The best example of how hope regenerates the past is the experience of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a wellspring of hope that acts, not directly on what is going to happen, but on what has already happened. It is the hope that the past can be regenerated, that not everything is said about our misery or that of our brother, no matter how much the faults committed against us may cry out.
Lent invites us to explore and practice this “backward hope”. Lent is characterized by prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Forgiveness contains all three: it is almsgiving because it is mercy that first loves, before those who have hurt us; it is prayer, because the reparation of guilt requires a divine action that surpasses man’s strength; it is fasting, because it brings with it patient suffering to regenerate memory.
The central story of Lent in the Old Testament is the return of Israel from Egypt, its great Exodus. Is it a story of forgiveness? If so, it would be close to the quintessential story of forgiveness in the New Testament, which is the parable of the prodigal son. Israel would return to the promised land as the lost son to his Father’s house. However, the Exodus seems to be more a story of liberation, or perhaps of the birth of the People, or of the way to new promises….
In reality, to understand that the Exodus is a story of forgiveness, we must go back in time to the story of Joseph, through whom Israel descends into Egypt.
1. The Exoduses of Joseph’s Story
In the Old Testament there are many stories where God forgives. But forgiveness between men is not abundant. Fraternal forgiveness par excellence is in the story of Joseph and his brothers, although it also appears between Jacob and Esau. Some prophets, like Hosea, live the forgiveness of their wives in their flesh. They are prefiguration of the final forgiveness that will take place in Christ.
The story of Joseph and his brothers reveals to us why an Exodus was necessary, and why that Exodus is not only a departure from Egypt, but a return to Israel, to the land of the fathers. Israel’s journey to Egypt is marked by a crime. This is the reason why Egypt ends up being a house of slavery. The crime is not the root of the problem, because it does not end with the death of Joseph. Thanks to the intervention of Reuben, the firstborn, and of Judah, a ray of hope opens up that is not extinguished in the whole story.
The reason given by his brothers for saving Joseph’s life is that he is “our own flesh” (Gen 37:27). That is to say, he was born into our same family and comes from the same paternal origin. Sharing the origin, the common source of life, is therefore a guarantee that hope will continue to beat, in spite of hatred. Recourse to this source will also be decisive in the practice of forgiveness.
At the same time, the crime especially affects Jacob, the father of the twelve. The death is only real to him, who sees the bloodstained robe and believes that he has been torn to pieces. So the crime against brother Joseph is essentially a crime against the origin, against the father. By envying the father’s predilection, one ends up hurting the father, who is then considered the source of injustice.
Joseph is the first to descend into Egypt. He is followed by his brothers. And they come and go, in a series of exoduses, in order to obtain forgiveness.
The story is well known. Famine forces Jacob and his sons to search for grain in Egypt. Joseph recognizes them, and immediately decides to attempt forgiveness. Attempt, because forgiveness is not easy, nor will it come for free. It will cost him and his family tears. Forgiveness is not simply amnesia that forgets. To forget the evil of the brother means to neglect the brother and the relationship with the brother. On the contrary, forgiveness takes the evil committed by the brother seriously because it takes the brother seriously. Nor did the father in the parable spare the prodigal son from the ordeal of ruin.
Forgiveness takes time, because it requires re-shaping the memory, learning to see our past in a different way. On the one hand, the guilty party needs to see his guilt differently, to recognize his wrongdoing. The brothers return to their land, for Joseph asks them to bring Benjamin back with them. It is the first liberatory exodus, for they are going to experience the wrong they did to their father by taking Joseph away from him. Indeed, they now have to take Benjamin with them, which would be taking Jacob to the grave. From the trance they come out new. They will no longer take the pain they caused lightly.
After this first exodus, a second one begins. Joseph, after meeting his brothers again, hides the king’s cup in Benjamin’s sack. When they returned from Egypt, he sent a guard to search them in order to accuse the youngest son. The occasion serves to reveal Judah’s generosity. For he offers himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place so that his father will not suffer. If the guilty brothers have learned to recognize their guilt, Joseph also learns to look at his brothers differently. They are not only capable of evil, but can become a source of good.
After these two exoduses, the forgiveness is prepared that has required Joseph’s transformation as well as that of his brothers. The third exodus or homecoming is a joyful return to Jacob, to announce the good news to him and bring him to Joseph (Gen 45:21-28). But there is yet a fourth exodus.
Indeed, Jacob, who has been reunited with Joseph, asks to be buried with his parents, and his sons take him there, after embalming him. Israel returns, but not the people of Israel. The circle, therefore, is not closed. The brothers fear that now, with their father dead, Joseph’s vengeance will come to do justice. Joseph reassures them, since he is not God (Gen 50:19), that is, he does not have the power to completely heal the guilt.
God, it is true, has not been absent in this forgiveness of Joseph. If it is possible to recognize one’s own evil, it is by understanding the seriousness of our actions, since in them a relationship with God is at stake. And if it is possible to hope in our brother, it is by discovering God as the origin of the covenant with our brother.
But God has to make himself present in a new way for forgiveness to reach its fullness. For forgiveness is something of a creative act. It regenerates the fountains of creation, it reopens its spring. Our forgiveness, however great it may be, as was Joseph’s, is not capable of reaching this root. The sinner wounds deeper than repentance or mercy alone can reach. Hence the plea to the Lord is necessary: “forgive, that we may forgive”.
The circle, therefore, has not been closed. And the story of Joseph ends with the People of Israel far from the homeland where their fathers are buried. What hope is there left to return? Joseph’s body, it is true, is not taken back to the land of the fathers. But neither is Joseph buried in Egypt, but his body is embalmed in a sarcophagus. Everything is ready for a new exodus, which only God will be able to set in motion: “when God thus takes care of you, you must bring my bones up with you from this place” (Gen 50:25).
2. The New Exodus, to the Fathers
St. Augustine, in a Lenten sermon (Sermon 209), says that there are three causes for which we do not forgive: we are lazy, obstinate or proud. We understand obstinacy, which “does not want to grant forgiveness when it is begged”. And also the shameful pride, which “disdains to ask for forgiveness”. We do not usually pay attention to laziness, by which one “forgets to put an end to enmities” (Sermon 209).
It is a subtle temptation: not to understand that we need to forgive, because the relationship with our brother, who represents us from within, is at stake. It is easier for us to understand the need to be forgiven. But if we do not forgive, something is also broken inside us. And the same is true if we do not receive forgiveness. Offender and victim are thus tied together, revolving around each other, needing each other and finding it difficult to open up to each other.
This forgetfulness is what happens to Israel in Egypt. A Pharaoh arrives who did not know Joseph, the text tells us, and who will oppress the Jews. But the biggest problem is that Israel itself no longer knew Joseph. He did not know, therefore, that there remained a debt to be paid and a necessary forgiveness, to be able to return to the promised land where their fathers rested. Joseph ended his life consoling his brothers: “God will remember you” (cf. Gen 50,24). And that, even if the twelve tribes do not remember their God.
In this light, the Exodus can be read as a search for radical forgiveness, so that forgiveness may reach to the heart, returning the people to the land and to their fathers. It is as if Israel were saying: “I shall get up and go to my fathers…, which is to return to the God of my fathers”. Their fathers are their origins, they are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. And the origins make it possible to recognize the origin: his Father is the Lord God. When one is reconciled with his origins and with his origin, he can be reconciled with his brethren, who come from the same origin.
Thus God not only opens to Moses the hope of liberation, but also the hope of return: “I am the God of your fathers” (Ex 3:6). And this return is possible because the relationship of the people with their fathers has not been broken. It is a relationship deeper than the sin they have committed, deeper even than the forgetfulness that has lulled them to sleep. This is why God calls them back, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, God the Creator.
That is why the whole Exodus is under the sign of a paternity. Let us remember the birth of Moses in the waters, when Pharaoh wants to kill every child. And also the tenth plague that recapitulates all and kills the firstborn. In this context is placed the death of the lamb, which rescues the eldest children of Israel. And so we arrive at the crossing of the Red Sea, which is another birth through the waters, similar to that of Moses as a child. And then, in the desert, one learns to receive life from God, through water and food, recognizing Him as Father. And a great challenge is to recognize the paternity of Moses, derived from that of God: it is in it that they have the mirror of the origin, and not in the golden calf, mirror of themselves.
This means that the relationship with the Father is mediated by a concrete presence. It is also mediated by the promised land where his parents are buried. Their first temptation before this land is to curse it, because it is too difficult to conquer. And in cursing the land they curse their origins, they curse the Origin, and they will have to go on pilgrimage for another forty years. Reconciliation with God is a reconciliation with fatherhood in a concrete sense, and it is also reconciliation with the earth itself, and therefore with one’s own body, which is a witness to the gift of the Creator. Only in this way does liberation from Egypt take place, only in this way does Egypt leave the hearts of the Israelites who had left Egypt behind.
On the horizon looms the figure of Jesus, the same name as Joshua, who introduces the people into the land of their fathers, after crossing the Jordan. The great challenge for Israel is to accept the Father’s forgiveness, and to forgive their fathers, who rest in the land, reconciling themselves with their origins. This is how Malachi ends, in the last verse of the Old Testament: “he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, the hearts of the children to their fathers”, which is equivalent to putting away all punishment and all evil (Mal 3:24).
Christ, on the ultimate horizon of Lent, will bring the forgiveness of the Father, and will allow us to reconcile ourselves with all our fathers, even with Adam. St. Augustine, considering the genealogy of Jesus according to Luke, counts seventy-seven links. And he relates this number to Peter’s question to Jesus: how many times must I forgive? Jesus answered, according to Augustine: “seventy-seven”. This means, according to Augustine, that Christ’s forgiveness regenerates our ultimate origins, erasing all the guilt accumulated since the beginning of our history. We can thus accept and love our whole life with a grateful heart, and this can also include the evil that others have done to us. There is no guilt or wound that this spring does not regenerate.
3. Our Forgiveness
We have seen, then, that the Exodus, the key to Lent, is a path of forgiveness. Moreover, it is understood that Lent is a way to be forgiven only to the extent that it is also a way to learn to forgive those who have offended us. For to accept God’s forgiveness is to accept all the mediations through which it comes to us.
A first glance can be directed to forgiveness towards those who have been fathers to us, and the wounds they have left in us. In a time of broken families, there is a growing need not only to forgive our siblings, but also to forgive those who gave us life. I remember a survey of people who, as children, had suffered the divorce of their parents. As adults, they needed to forgive those who were their origins.
It helps to think that every father always causes wounds, because he tries to generate freedom in us, which opens paths. Resentment towards the father turns back into difficulty in understanding the growth to which the father calls us. That is why God reveals himself as the God of the fathers, because this was their mission: to open life (in a certain way, tearing it apart) toward the first source. For anyone who discovers his original source, it is possible to forgive his parents.
So the Exodus makes us recognize that the wound in our origins is not only a rupture, or better said, that it is a rupture out of which a spring is born, like when Moses broke the rock in the desert, water flowed from it. To unite the painful crack with the water of life is to save fatherhood and to reconcile with it. Christ sealed this unity of wound and water when he made of his pierced heart a wound-spring.
From this wound of fatherhood, other wounds are illuminated. There is the brotherly wound, which is born from the wound of the father. For it is marked by envy, that is to say, a lack of vision (in-vidia: “to see against”) of our brother. To forgive our brother we must see him as united to the same father as us, and we must recognize the goodness of our shared origin. From this shared origin one can look at the brother as a partaker in a shared destiny, as one who belongs to the same fullness as me. That is to say, it can be seen that the wound in the relationship with our brother is a wound with regard to our destiny. Lent is the way to rekindle the destiny that unites the brothers towards the same land.
It seems somewhat easier to overcome resentment towards one’s children. For it is the duty of a father to overcome his children’s ingratitude. Thus, David wept at the death of Absalom, without considering him his enemy. Learning to forgive a son is as great a task as learning to be a father. Fathers treasure forgiveness for their children, and not the other way around, as we can say, drawing inspiration from St. Paul (2 Cor 12:14).
This means enlivening the awareness of our sin as fathers. Let us recall the Roman Canon, when the priests, fathers of the faithful, describe themselves with a beautiful definition of their ministry: “[we], your servants, who though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies,” a hope that moves us to ask to share in the fellowship of the holy apostles and martyrs.
Perhaps the most difficult forgiveness occurs in the case of spousal infidelity. For here the common story, freely and mutually chosen, and which encompasses the whole of life, is attacked. Forgiveness has one course of action: a return to the nuptial promise, which was made in a foundational place, more stable than the will of the spouses. If it was God who united man and woman, He can ensure that this union is restored, despite every offense born of the heart of man and woman.
The priest or religious can feel this betrayal when he feels abandoned by his community, by his religious family, which is part of the Church and which takes on the face of a spouse. The path is giving back the familial countenance to what perhaps seems to us only a cold institution. It is key to have recourse to Mary, where the Church takes place and where all its environments have their root. Forgiveness is possible if there is a glimpse of an original good presence, upon which all other relationships rest and grow.
For this Lenten journey of hope, hope in forgiveness, an aspect of the sacrament of penance can help. Unlike baptism, in penance the penitent’s acts enter into the sacrament, they become part of it. This may lead one to think that penance is less powerful than baptism because confession and satisfaction are necessary. However, if we look at it carefully, it is the other way around. For this means that the penitent has the dignity of a son, and therefore his acts can enter the sacrament.
Let us note that the three acts of the penitent (contrition, confession, satisfaction) can be linked to the three theological virtues: charity, faith and hope, in this order. Satisfaction corresponds to hope, because it is hope in the man’s own action, who becomes the main actor in straightening out his own history, collaborating with God.
The path of the Exodus, the way of Lent, is the way where God’s Providence is at work. Forgiveness, with the power it has to straighten out the past, depicts this Divine Providence to us, which also directs history. When Joseph reiterates his forgiveness to his brothers, he pronounces this phrase: “Even though you meant to harm me, God meant it for good, to achieve this present end, the survival of many people” (Gen 50:20). To forgive is to unite oneself to the action of God, who transforms individual evil into a common good. For if sin disintegrates the individuals, forgiveness reunites the new people. Thus, the Lenten journey is a journey of hope, a hope that purifies the past in order to reopen the future.