By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
AND FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US – a key word in this section of the Our Father is “as”. We are asking God to forgive us to the degree that we forgive others. This offers a sobering look at grudges and resentments. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in Number 2838, it states: “This petition is stonishing. If it consisted only of the first phrase, “and forgive us our trespasses,” it might have been included, implicitly, in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, since Christ’s sacrifice is “that sins may be forgiven.” But, according to the second phrase, our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement. Our petition looks to the future, but our response must come first, for the two parts are formed by the single word “as.”
I came to a personal understanding of this teaching when I was a student at the Jesuit school of theology in Berkeley, California. I lived in a community with thirteen other Jesuits. One Palm Sunday I took my Bible and went to our chapel which was in a different building. I wanted to get into the spirit of Holy Week. As I sat reading John’s Gospel and his account of the Passion of Jesus, I came to the scene of the Last Supper.
At the supper, after Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples, he exhorted them to do likewise. I sat in silence with these words ringing in my heart. As I did so, one of the other Jesuits in our community came to mind. He and I had a ‘falling out’ about two months previous to this day and what had started out as a minor disagreement had grown to an emotional wedge between us. In fact we had been avoiding personal contact for over a month.
As I sat in the chapel a question came to me, “What would it mean for me to wash this man’s feet?” The answer was very clear, “Go and be reconciled with him.” I asked God for the courage to do so because I had no idea how he would react to such an overture on my part. But go I did. He was receptive to my efforts and emotionally moved by my taking the risk to seek reconciliation. I apologized to him for my part in our estrangement and he did the same to me. Our friendship was reborn and we both marveled at the grace of the outcome.
Pope Benedict XVI writes of this section of the Our Father, “Every instance of trespass involves some kind of injury to truth and to love.” He writes further, “God is a god who forgives, because he loves his creatures; but forgiveness can only penetrate and become effective in one who is (also) forgiving.” (From his book, “Jesus of Nazareth”). So, there is the challenge. Two questions for reflection: Who do I find difficult to forgive? What would it mean for me to ‘wash’ that person’s feet?
“Spirit of God, help me to turn the injury I feel into compassion and purify my memory that the hurt I feel may be transformed into peace.” (See II Corinthians 5: 11-21)
(December 2007 Newsletter)