Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Healing the Wounds through Forgiveness

Second Sunday of Easter Year C

I dislike wearing short khakis. To be honest, I find it embarrassing, not because I’m prudish but because I have ugly scars from a previous motorcycle accident stretching the entire length of the shin on both legs. I guess we all have scars, from the unstitched nicks of childhood to crooked or misshapen noses, to long gouges left on our chests from bypass surgery. Then there are the countless inner wounds; the grief that never quite heals, wrongs done to us or by us that can never be righted, memories that cannot be erased, hurtful words or betrayals that seem to have a direct line to our tear ducts or the recurrent knot in our stomach. Some scars are readily visible; others remain hidden, whether from embarrassment or reticence. A friend once told me that his “tears roll on the inside.” You can’t get through life without scars, inside or outside.

But where do our deepest hurts come from. The popular spiritual author, Henri Nouwen speaks of them emanating from our primary relationships, those persons we love most and who love us most; they too are the ones who hurt us most. Nouwen writes, “that is where we are most loved and most wounded… where our greatest joy and our greatest pain touch each other.” Yes, those who are closest to us are also those who cause us the deepest pain. It is our father, our mother, our brother, our sister, our spouse, our closest friend, our co-worker, our neighbour, a member of our community, our priest, who can hurt us most and be most hurt by us. Christians are not exempted from such hurting. In fact, truth be told, Christians offend and hurt each other with frightening regularity. And we know - far too many Catholics have had painful experiences in the Church, and many have simply opted to walk away.

No wonder, the first few words of the Risen Lord as He appeared to His disciples behind closed doors in the Upper Room, spoke not of freedom from trouble or conflict but rather of forgiveness. Our Lord begins a greeting of peace then quickly commissions His disciples to be messengers of God’s merciful love and forgiveness, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those who sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those who sins you retain, they are retained.”

The gift of the Holy Spirit and the mandate and power to forgive cannot be understood apart from the wounds which our Lord exhibited on His Body. It’s fascinating, then, that when the fourth evangelist tells the story of the Lord’s appearance to His disciples after the resurrection, he tells how our Lord showed them His scars, His wounds. Not once, but twice. The wounds of Christ point us to our personal wounds, to the wounds of our communities, and to a wounded Church in need of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Particularly, Christ’s wounds remind us of the unhealed wounds that often weigh heavily on our hearts.

But it is not just individuals who suffer wounds. Because the Church is mystically “Christ’s Body,” how much greater are sins that injure the Church? Since its foundation, Mother Church, the Body of Christ, has been rocked, wounded, and splintered by the sins of its members – heresy, apostasy and schism. But today, toxic behaviour among members of the Body of Christ continue to cause further harm. Such behaviour do not merely injure the reputation or hurt the feelings of another, but often wounds the Church deeply and in fact hinders her from carrying out her mission as a sacrament of salvation to the world. Envy, gossip, back-biting, betrayal, division, factionalism, just to name a few. Instead of attracting others to the Lord, these forms of toxic behaviour are often off-putting as they drive off both potential enquirers, and as well as members of the community who are scandalised by the lack of charity.

Let’s return to the story of our gospel. Most of us have heard a homily about Thomas’ unbelief, and that our faith should not be merely confined to what is visible, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Yes, it is about faith. But today I would like to look at this scene a little differently. I want to suggest to you that this story is not just about the faith of Thomas but about the Body of Christ, the Church. You see, many Catholics have no issue with their faith in the Risen Christ, it is their experience with the Church that often shakes their belief and calls into question what they fundamentally hold as true. Let’s face it, most people leave the Church, not because they found her teachings to be false or deficient, but because they had experienced some hurt, pain, or injury at the hand of another within the Body of Christ.

This is true for Thomas. When his brothers told him that they had seen the Risen Lord, his incredulity may have been directed at them. “Can I ever believe the testimony of these cowards, betrayers and deniers?”  He may be thinking that this was some sick April Fools’ Day joke being played on him. If Thomas had doubted, he may have doubted the words of his brothers rather than that of the Lord’s. Hear-say testimony was insufficient to convince him. He needed hard evidence, “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe. 

But, our Lord showed Thomas and the other disciples a different kind of proof – proof of the power of forgiveness. He was that living proof. Here was a man who was not only wounded physically, but most grievously in His heart by the betrayal and denial of those who were dearest and closest to Him, but He forgave them, nevertheless. And this is what He wants of us. He knows how much we’re hurting. He knows and shares our woundedness. To do that, He presents Himself not as an unscathed physician, untouched by the wounds of His patients. But rather, shows Himself to be the wounded healer who heals all wounds and scars through His own wounds. This too must be our ministry and our mission: to forgive those who have hurt us.

Though many of us would wish for a perfectly pristine Church made up of perfect saccharine sweet members who do not hurt each other, this is mere wishful thinking, at least in the here and now. The fact that the Lord still bears His wounds after the Resurrection is a tremendous beacon of hope for the rest of us.  On the face of it, woundedness is not something that inspires hope.  We live in a culture that exalts perfectly shaped bodies and perfectly integrated personalities, and part of me wishes that someday I could get beyond my inner and outer wounds. But this appearance of our Lord to Thomas and the other apostles suggests to me that I’ll always carry my brokenness, or at least the signs of my brokenness, with me, during this life.  More importantly, though our Lord did not promise to give us a Church with perfect members, He offered us something better – the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power and mission to forgive each other’s sins.  There will be no need for forgiveness, if we never hurt or get hurt.

What our Lord asks is not easy. Sometimes we want to forgive, but we cannot seem to let go of our hurt. It can be easier to forgive the sin of a stranger or a non-Christian than a close friend, a relative, or a fellow Christian or your priest, for that matter. That’s because we can expect mistreatment from some strangers and foes. But we expect more from our brothers and sisters in Christ. In the Church, we expect to find honesty, love, and compassion. But instead, we do hurt one another repetitively—more than we like to admit.  We speak carelessly, we forget promises, we fail to offer help in their hour of need, and more. But we must learn to forgive. We need to forgive. We ought to forgive—for our own benefit, for the benefit of our brothers and sisters, and above all because we love and honour Jesus, who first forgave us and gave us this mission, mandate and commandment to forgive. And the Holy Spirit makes all this possible.

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