As I think upon the Cross of Jesus Christ today, I remember the first words that Jesus spoke on the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Forgiveness, the hardest thing for human beings to do. Yet, the thing most characteristic of the one who was God and Man! Oh, but you might still say, so easy for him to forgive! After all, he wasn’t just a man, he was God! Yes, but God nailed to a Cross in human flesh, enduring human suffering. God humiliated by sinful men! You want to think again about how easy we should presume it was for God to forgive?
Here is the thing about forgiveness. It is not a theoretical thing, something for philosophers and theologians to write about or speculate about. It is an action. And only if you have suffered in the hands of someone else can you forgive, can you experience forgiveness. To be truly forgiving, God had to suffer the indignity of the Cross. That is the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus did not die in order to appease an angry God, as you often hear from TV and radio preachers. Quite the contrary, Jesus died to bring to perfection God’s love – because love is perfected in forgiveness. It is the highest human perfection – it is the thing that makes us most like God.
Hebrews 2:10-11 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation (ἀρχηγὸν τῆς σωτηρίας) perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same source (ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες). So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
Powerful example of forgiveness: seven French Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, beheaded by Islamic extremists in 1996. Their story was made into an award-winning film in 2010, Of Gods and Men. The prior of the Algerian monastery, Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France. Opened after his murder, it read in part:
If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.
I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?
I know the caricatures which a certain Islamic ideology encourages and which make it easy for some to dismiss the religion as hateful…
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But such people should know that at last I will be able to see the children of Islam as He sees them—all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His passion. His secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.…
For this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you” … I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
The man who wrote these words understood the meaning of the Cross. We most likely will not experience death by beheading or death on a Cross. But we can forgive!