As a young Catholic girl I observed lent with earnestness but not much thought. I received ashes on the first Wednesday of the season, abstained from eating meat on Fridays and made the grand sacrifice of giving up sweets of all kinds. In reality it wasn’t that difficult to do because we never had sugary things around our house. Anything like a piece of chocolate or a bag of cookies was a rare treat. The truth was that I simply carried on as usual but gave myself a pat on the back for being good enough to totally insure that no sweets would pass through my lips during the forty days before Easter.
As I matured I learned that a far better exercise during the lenten season was to reflect on the way in which I was leading my life. After all, that is what Jesus did when He traveled into the wilderness. I realized that following His example was a much better way of honoring Him. I spent more time reading spiritual tracts and designing plans for becoming a better person. One of the things that I thought about a great deal is forgiveness. Jesus Himself made the ultimate sacrifice of His life to atone for our sins. Even as He hung on a cross He forgave those who executed Him along with one of the thieves who was crucified next to Him. It’s always been difficult for me to even remotely imagine the betrayal, abuse, brutality and pain that Jesus endured at the time of His death and yet His final act was one of compassion and absolution. In the death of His humanity He taught us how to be more Godlike.
It is so difficult to set aside our anger and hurt in a willingness to completely pardon someone for transgressions against us. We hang on tightly to our negative feelings, nursing them as though they somehow make us stronger. We are scornful of those who in their seeming weakness seek to bind old wounds and provide second chances. Ours is a world that seems to prefer unrelenting warriors over those who offer mercy. Peacemakers are not as much in vogue as crusaders. Diplomacy is trumped by force.
Our politicians only rarely dare to stand for what they personally believe to be right rather than adhering to a prescribed political platform. These days it is odd to see someone going against the groups to which they belong. We can’t seem to find enough understanding to realize that very little that happens in real life can be easily defined by hard and fast rules. We have all too often distorted the messages of the messiahs who created various religious sects. The idea of unconditional forgiveness is sometimes deemed to be hypocrisy, cowardice, a lack of real moral compass. Many among us have become judgmental people with unwaveringly self-righteous indignation. Thus is the root of so much trouble in the world today.
We insist that our republicans and democrats battle with one another rather than unite in common causes. Anyone who even suggests that they might find ways of compromising is cashiered out of the discussions. We prefer a stew of anger, distrust and sometimes outright hatred. We have religious groups who easily condemn and ostracize certain individuals and groups rather than attempting to demonstrate acceptance of differences. They preach a kind of ugliness that seems to counter good faith. Friends and family members turn their backs on one another, unwilling to forgive and forget slights and misunderstandings. They grow apart and turn unkindness into hatred.
All of the rancor and distrust is toxic and in its most extreme form leads to killing an innocent man on a cross for His thoughts or placing people in gas chambers for their religious beliefs. It leads to murder and war. It destroys relationships and rips families apart.
Perhaps the season of Lent was meant more than anything to be a time for forgiveness and mercy, a time when we work to repair rifts that have occurred in our lives. It is so easy to love and embrace those who think like us and agree with us. It is far more difficult to feel a sense of kinship with someone who has been cruel or in opposition and yet our challenge is to reach out to those very people.
Those of us who are Christians believe in our own redemptions, given as a gift to us from our Savior. Somehow we too often see ourselves as being exempt from a need to pardon our fellow men and women as well as ourselves from the imperfections that we all possess. One does not have be religious at all to understand the necessity of working together in the community of mankind. If we accept the complexities of living and admit that everyone makes mistakes we are more likely to demonstrate a willingness to embrace even those who have hurt us in the past.
We don’t have to be naive in attempting to reach out to our transgressors. There are certainly situations in which it is all too apparent that nothing that we do will overcome some evil other than imprisoning or extinguishing it. We had to defeat Adolf Hitler or he would have continued his murderous rage but there is little reason for us to push a former friend out of our lives simply because he or she has disagreed with our philosophies.
I have to admit to feeling unfiltered hate for George Wallace when I was young. He always seemed to be snarling and spewing the ugliest forms of racism. He was as despicable as anyone who ever governed others. I felt no sympathy for him when his wife died of cancer nor did I shed a single tear when he was gunned down in an assassination attempt that left him wheelchair bound for the rest of his days. Somehow I reveled in the karma that seemed to overtake his life with a vengeance. I hoped that he would rot away in pain and suffering but that is not how his story ended.
Wallace was unable to care for himself. That job was left to a black man of great faith and spiritual strength. He catered to the former governor’s every need and he also demonstrated a kindness of spirit that was unlike the ugliness of his boss. Day after day he treated Wallace with dignity and respect and in those interludes the two men began to talk and form an unlikely bond of friendship. Somehow the caretaker transformed the very soul of George Wallace until one day all of the former governor’s hate was stripped away by the love that had been accorded him. In a dramatic turn around Wallace asked his valet to take him to a church to speak with the very people whom he had once derided as being inferior and unworthy of even basic human rights. At that moment he wanted to apologize and so he ultimately did. It was unconditional love that brought about his stunning change of heart and it taught me that mercy often has the power of changing even the most hardened heart.
Goodness has always had more power than evil. In this season of lent rather than giving up something perhaps it is best that each of us make the biggest sacrifice of all, setting aside disagreements and forgiving someone who has heretofore been a source of anger and dislike. Think of how much change would occur in just forty days if every single one of us were to find enough compassion to mend even one relationship. Forgiveness is the sacrifice that we should all seek.