Recapturing forgiveness

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Above: Homecoming of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni. Image: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, picture gallery, CCBY-NC-SA 4.0

i4give Day, a remarkable event coming soon, has the potential to spark a resurgence of the virtue of mercy

Forgiveness is a difficult concept for contemporary society. It is seen as irrelevant, lenient and an appeal to weak indulgence. This fundamental Christian principle is being challenged in the arena of public discourse and culture.

In fact, modern Western culture has become so focused on the autonomous self that it sees forgiveness and reconciliation as an obstacle to justice and of little importance, a moral burden on the person. More than ever, we need to reclaim this pearl of understanding so that the human person can come to the knowledge of the Truth and be set free (cf. Jn 8:32).

Sacred Scripture is filled with passages pertaining to mercy. But there is one passage that, arguably, speaks to the heart above all others. From the Cross, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, utters words of mercy that have echoed throughout the centuries: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

God here is showing us mercy in action. From the Cross, Jesus addresses the Father and, as Pope Benedict XVI noted, “not only asks forgiveness for those who crucify Him but also offers an interpretation of what is happening”. He offers an excuse for the men who crucify Him and says that “they know not what they do”.

In this, we can see Jesus as one who practices what He preaches (cf. Acts 1:1) and as a model whom we should imitate. He taught us that we have a duty to forgive offences (see Mt 6:12-15; 18:21-35), and even to love our enemies (see Mt 5:44-45; Rom 12:14, 20), because He had come into the world to offer Himself as a victim “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28; cf. Eph 1:7) and to enable us to obtain pardon. Thus, Christian forgiveness is founded on the Person of Jesus Christ.

He teaches us to forgive those who offend us and even to excuse them, thereby leaving open the door to the hope of their pardon and repentance. For, ultimately, God is the only judge of an individual (cf. James 4:12).

This heroic witness to forgiveness was practiced by Christians from the very beginning. For example, the first martyr, Saint Stephen, died begging God to pardon his executioners (see Acts 7:60). Throughout every era, Christians have continued to practice forgiveness.

However, we are often left wondering whether forgiveness is still practiced in contemporary society. As Pastor Timothy Keller aptly writes, “Forgiveness is seen now as radically unjust and impractical, as short circuiting the ability of victims to gain honour and virtue as others rise to defend them.

It’s no wonder that this culture quickly becomes littered with enormous numbers of broken and now irreparable relationships.” Thus, we have been left wondering whether forgiveness has faded into the distant memory of a once Western Christian society.

Danny and Leila Abdallah, Bridget Sakr and Craig Mackenzie at Veronique Sakr’s memorial. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Though there remain exceptions. In 2020 a tragic Australian event reminded the world that mercy is still the source of an authentic civilisation. On 1 February 2020, a driver, who was under the influence of alcohol and drugs and speeding down a residential Sydney street, lost control of his vehicle and tragically struck and killed four innocent children – Abdallah siblings Antony, 13, Angelina, 12 and Sienna, 8, along with their cousin Veronique Sakr, 11.

The nation mourned these young lives taken too soon. But amidst this horrific heartbreak, an act of Christian witness captivated and shocked the nation. The day following the catastrophic incident, the mother of the three Abdallah children, Leila, stood beside her husband, Danny, before the media and said: “in my heart I forgive him”, referring to the man who took the lives of her children.

Her hurt endures. Her desire for justice to be observed appropriately remained. But she went against the cultural norm and raised the light of Christ’s forgiveness to a dark and lost world. It was a heroic act, but it could not have been made if it was not founded on deep faith. Undoubtedly, forgiveness is demanding and requires the one who forgives to do so with all their minds and hearts.

Benedict XVI reminds us that forgiveness has to do with truth: “Forgiveness is in fact, the restoration of truth, the renewal of being, and the vanquishment of the lies that lurk in every sin; sin is by nature a departure from the truth of one’s own nature and, by consequence, from the truth of the Creator God”.

The one who forgives, follows what psychiatrist Dr M. Scott Peck calls, “The Road Less Travelled”. By taking this road, we can confront and resolve life’s difficult and painful problems. But “to forgive”, as Pope Francis exhorts, “is not only a momentary thing, it is a continuous thing against this resentment, this hatred that returns.”

Moreover, when we opt to practice forgiveness, we open ourselves to the healing grace that God has waiting for us. Without forgiving, our capacity to act would be confined to a single event from which we could never recover. As it were, we would remain the prisoner of our hurt and the injustice caused against us.

Thus, forgiveness is a medicine to us only if we choose to give it away to others. In doing so, it heals the wounds in our heart. In this lies the paradox: forgiveness is more healing for the forgiver than it is for the one who is forgiven.

In light of the above, forgiveness involves practicing a form of voluntary suffering, which can be redemptive and generates about a greater good. Indeed, the Abdallah and Sakr families were gravely wronged. But the response, as we clearly witnessed through Leila, was to deny themselves revenge (cf. Rom 12:17-21).

Forgiveness requires a commitment to relinquish the desire for vengeance. Consequently, forgiveness is demanding and, as Pastor Keller writes, “is always costly to the forgiver, but the profits—at the least within your heart—and at the best in the restoration of relationship—outweigh the cost”.

Bitterness only leads to further discord and disharmony within oneself. But opting to take the road less travelled will transform the heart and mind of the person and allow them to live a life of interior harmony and peace.

The cries of these families have been a great witness to the Gospel of forgiveness. Nevertheless, these tears will not fall in vain.”
– Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay

In an age that harbours resentment and vengeance, we are impelled to call society to return to the Face of forgiveness, Jesus Christ. By turning back and gazing at His merciful Face, we hold onto a firm hope for a transformative culture that practices the timeless truth of forgiveness. Therefore, let us return our gaze to the crucified Christ, who asks the Father to forgive those who were committing a grave injustice against Him.

From the Cross, we are invited to take the difficult step of also praying for those who wrong us, who have injured us. We are repeatedly invited to live in our prayers this same attitude of mercy and love with which God treats us.

After all, do we not say every day in the Lord’s prayer to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? May this spirit of forgiveness envelop the world so that God’s light may illuminate the hearts of humanity and call them anew to participate in His divine forgiveness.

Indeed, the tragic events that occurred in the lives of the Abdallah and Sakr families are reflected in our Maronite Divine Liturgy, which is found in the Anaphora of Saint Sixtus. The prayer comes directly after we recite the Our Father, “O Lord, hasten to transform all that is harmful and detrimental into that which will help and benefit us…” What could be more harmful than losing your own children?

These beautiful souls now leave a legacy. They reflect the grace of God and the will of their families to forgive in the face of an unimaginable tragedy. The cries of these families have been a great witness to the Gospel of forgiveness. Nevertheless, these tears will not fall in vain. For God will continue to bring an immeasurable good out of this heartbreak.

How wonderful was the initiative to turn the date of this tragedy on the 1st of February into an Australian National Day of Forgiveness and reconciliation where, we are all called to celebrate with the Abdallah and the Sakr Families, i4give Day.

It is our hope that this light coming out of the darkness instigates the return of a Christian way of forgiveness in an age that has forgotten how to forgive, and the power of forgiveness.

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