On the last Sunday of 2013, the second Mass reading is from Colossians. St. Paul's instructions to God's people of the first century are instructive to Christians of the 21st century. "Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience." He says we are to bear with one another and forgive each other just as Christ forgives us.
Then Paul wrote, "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body."
It's the attitude that we who are bound together as one body in Christ should have as we enter the new year. By allowing the peace of Christ to abide within us, we will surely find that we can abide with one another in a spirit of compassion, kindness, meekness and patience.
We will find it easier to forgive others knowing Our Lord has forgiven us. Forgiveness is a spiritual imperative of the Christian faith. The forgiveness we receive from our heavenly Father is related to how we forgive those who have offended us.
This is not negotiable. We read in Matthew's Gospel that when Christ gave us the Lord's Prayer he included, "forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us."
Jesus immediately repeated this spiritual principle after the prayer and said, "Your heavenly Father will forgive you if you forgive those who sin against you; but if you refuse to forgive them, he will not forgive you" (Matthew 6.14-15).
If Our Lord stated this spiritual maxim twice in quick succession, it was something he did not want us to miss. Jesus illustrated this in his own life by forgiving the people who were putting him to death on the cross.
As a philosophical idea, forgiveness may seem wonderful to people when they feel benevolent, comfortable and all is well in their world until they have something or someone to forgive. Then philosophical ideas are out the window. It's grudge or get-even time.
It must not be like that. People must forgive so God can forgive them. As Christians, we must forgive others and continue to forgive them, without reservation, for sins done against us past and present. C.S. Lewis wrote about Our Lord's emphatic demand on this point:
"He (Jesus) doesn't say that we are to forgive other's sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of the sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don't, we shall be forgiven none of our own" (Fern Seed and Elephants, pp. 26-27.)
It is not easy. In fact, on a human level, it can be almost impossible. I know this from personal experience. There have been times when I had to ask Christ to help me overcome past and present grievances in order to properly forgive others who have sinned against me.
It becomes easier when I consider that I have sinned against others. Other people have grievances against me for which I want their forgiveness. Who am I to withhold forgiveness? To do so only hurts my human relationships and my relationship with God who has so freely forgiven me for a multitude of my own sins.
If I withhold forgiveness, God will not forgive me. Remember Jesus' words on this matter. God desires that we be at peace with each other and him.
That is where St. Paul's exhortation becomes meaningful in the Christian's life: "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body."
The answer comes from giving our lives to Christ and his love. With God all things are possible, even the ability to forgive the most heinous sins committed against us, knowing that Christ gave his life to gain forgiveness for even the most grievous sins we may commit.
Forgiving others is liberating: No more inventories of wrongs to keep, no more grudges to harbour at the expense of peace with God.
Forgiveness is reciprocal. We receive it from God inasmuch as we give it. Relief comes from knowing that others forgive us: No more shame in their presence or avoiding contact or places where they might be, or worst: defiance. To know God has forgiven us brings such peace.