When I was in grade school, I got into a fight with another boy whom I did not even know because he believed I had pushed him on the playground and, as a result, broke his watch. I explained to him that I did not even know I had pushed him but that if I had, it was an accident. He would not accept this explanation because, to him, the more important fact was that this watch, which had been given to him by his grandfather, was not working, and I was to blame. His anger boiled over, it was extreme, and I had never encountered such a situation. There was no reasoning with him, and it came to blows. One of my friends intervened and asked him if he had tried winding the watch. He tried, and it worked. Then something happened which I had also never experienced. With no adult involvement or direction, he immediately asked my forgiveness and did so in a heartfelt way, in a spirit of genuine sorrow. Taken aback, I gave it. That could have been the end, but he went even further. He actively sought out my friendship, and we became the best of friends. There was never again between us a single harsh word. I did not until today think about this exchange between two 7 or 8 year old boys as anything except a mere factual event. But there is more. There was no obvious reason for us to be friends. We came from very different families and backgrounds. We did not share the same interests. We basically had nothing in common – at all. It is hard to think of someone more different from me than my friend. Even “justice” would say that he had not “deserved” my close friendship, especially in light of the other friends I had who did not cause me such grief. The fact that we became best friends, however, makes all the sense in the world.
For Christians of the Orthodox Faith, today marks the beginning of Great Lent. It begins with Forgiveness Sunday. On this day, we ask one another for forgiveness of our sins. We do this because Lent is a penitential time when we ask God to forgive us. As Scripture clearly tells us, God will forgive our sins if we forgive those who have sinned against us, and He will not forgive us if we do not forgive others. Matthew 6:14-15. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, “[F]orgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. …. Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.” Love and forgiveness are inseparable. One does not exist without the other.
Two great and very different men of the 20th century understood well the tie between love and forgiveness. One was a simple, uneducated Greek monk named Elder Porphyrios, and the other was one of the Oxford “Inklings” named Charles Williams. Williams said that forgiveness of sins “is the great fundamental covenant not only between man and man but between man and God.” They both understood that we are made in the image of God, we are all called to unity, and that we are all interconnected. “Our every neighbor is ‘flesh of our flesh’. Can I be indifferent toward him? Can I cause him distress? Can I hate him?” Elder Porphyrios continued, “Love and have compassion for everyone. ‘And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it….’” 1 Cor. 12:26.
On Forgiveness Sunday, one Christian says to another, “Forgive me,” and the response is, “God forgives.” Williams believed that only God forgives, only He can make forgiveness between men possible. This is because we co-inhere with Christ to be able to get beyond our flawed humanness to reach divine forgiveness, and because true forgiveness will not suffer any human limitations. Williams also believed that forgiveness was a sacrifice, it is “the operation of ‘offering oneself for another’….” If we entertain any kind of grudge, then this “is to precisely prefer the selfhood…, that is precisely not to offer oneself.” As an explainer of Williams said, “Forgiveness that is not absolute is not forgiveness.” And it is not love; it reserves something, withholds something, or controls something. There can be no condition, no promise, and no demand. It is truly complete and unconditional, something that is impossible without God.
So my friend from the playground, contaminated by the anger and selfhood pervasive in this fallen world, reached across the human divide, across obvious and fundamental differences, to reach the image of God in us. I had to reach back, to accept this and offer the forgiveness requested. Hatred, hurt, differences, disagreements, are a failure of unity, a failure of community, and a Pyrrhic victory for the ego, the self. A friendship born out of overcoming these evils, and achieving the good of unity, of brotherhood, of the image of God, is closer and has more in common than any other kind.
We live in dangerous times; but the dangers may not be as obvious as we think. A society or theology which elevates notions of “justice” and “rightness” and pushes out mercy and forgiveness can easily become like Yeats’ “rough beast” with a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” Forgiveness, however, makes love possible; and without it life is harsh and contaminated. In the words of Elder Porphyrios, “Love towards Christ is without limits, and the same is true of love towards our neighbor. It should radiate everywhere, to the ends of the earth, to every single person.”
Timothy, a sinner.