Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The sign of forgiveness

In the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the phrase 

'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

may equally be translated, 

'Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us'. 

If anyone is caused to suffer through the misdeeds of another, something is missing in the relationship between them. We speak of being owed an apology, if we have been wronged. 

Jesus tackles the question of how much we are owed, in the parable about a heavily indebted man, released from his obligation to pay a colossal outstanding sum, who refuses to do the same for someone whose debt to him is minor in comparison. He has got away without being punished yet still seeks to punish someone else. When his master finds this out he is outraged and punishes him even more severely for his unmerciful behaviour. 

Having told this story to his disciples, Jesus issues one of his sternest warnings:

'And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.' (Matthew 18:35)

Heartfelt forgiveness is difficult to practise when the heart itself is wounded by sin. This makes it vital to keep praying to receive healing for being sinned against, as well as pardon for sin committed. We are always sinned against as well as sinners in a world of dysfunction in relation to God, as well as each other. 

It requires courage and determination to keep on facing this truth, and refusing to despair. The appeal we make to God for mercy is a lifeline anchoring us to Christ and his cross, the definitive sign of divine compassion. It is with good reason that the priest's declaration of God's pardon and absolution, and the anointing with oil for healing, are accompanied by the priest making the sign of the cross on the recipient, and made by the recipient themselves. It is usual in eastern Orthodox tradition for repetition of 'Lord have mercy' to be accompanied by crossing oneself. The simple physical action unites the mind and body with the spiritual reality. Another brief prayer associated with the making of the sign of the cross is this

'Fence me about, O Lord, with the power of the honourable and life-giving Cross, and deliver me from every evil.'

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