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Lenten Penance Service
Monday, March 19, 2018

     I am told that, when the Sacrament of Reconciliation is celebrated in the Orthodox Church, the common practice is for the priest and the penitent to stand together facing an icon of Christ, with the penitent addressing his or her confession to Christ and the priest acting as a witness.

     That’s not our practice in the Roman Church, but I like it nonetheless. It’s a reminder that it is to Jesus Christ that we confess our sins.  He, our merciful and loving Savior, like us in all things but sin, is the one who receives our expression of sorrow and readily offers us forgiveness.  The priest has a role, of course: he represents the Church and he ministers in the name of Christ -- an icon, if you will, of the forgiving Christ. But the priest will always be a very imperfect icon, for he, too, is a sinner; he, too, must himself ask forgiveness as well as offer it to others in the name of Christ.

     So, it seems wonderfully fitting tonight that we gather before an icon of Christ as we beg his forgiveness.  And he gives it so freely and lovingly.  But it doesn’t end there, does it?  Receiving Christ’s forgiveness is only part of the story; it cannot be separated from the other part: our willingness to forgive others.  And that is the more difficult part by far. Jesus knew this, of course.  Why else would he have put it right at the heart of the only prayer he ever taught his disciples?  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  In those few words Jesus tied together forever the forgiveness we receive to the forgiveness we give.  And he left no wiggle room whatever, did he?  No forgiving, no forgiveness.  It’s as simple as that, and as difficult. And if we are not ready to do it, well, maybe we’re not ready to pray that prayer!

     And how often are we to forgive?  Jesus says “seventy times seven times” – the number of infinity.  We are to put no limits on forgiving – any more than God does. When we ask God to forgive us, we are to be ready and willing to forgive all those in our lives who have hurt us in any way. Jesus not only asks this of us, he demands it. Difficult as that may be for us to hear, there is no one – absolutely no one – who is to remain outside the embrace of our forgiveness.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that we won’t sometimes have to struggle – even struggle mightily and maybe over a long period of time – to forgive someone who has gravely harmed or hurt us.  But it does mean that we never close our heart to forgiveness, or find ourselves saying words like, “as long as I live, I will never forgive him, I will never forgive her.”

     This gospel message becomes especially challenging when we start to insert names - the names of the people with whom we live, or have lived, our lives - the people who have hurt us or who are hurting us even now: husband, wife, child, former husband, former wife, rebellious child, friend, neighbor, boss, co-worker.  And even if we can’t bring ourselves to forgive them yet, we have to want to get there.

     My friends, the forgiveness we celebrate in this sacrament tonight is not only a gift we receive but a gift we give to others.  A tall order, I know.  It certainly is for me.  That’s why I take comfort tonight in facing together with you the icon of Christ.  For in looking at him and remembering how he has forgiven us, and at what price, we get the message – and the measure - of how we are to forgive.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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Seattle, Washington  98104
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