Forgiveness takes some making sense of. For a long time I really saw forgiveness as something I was called upon to do. And I did do it, to the best of my ability. Then the long slow agony of my marriage ground to its death, and I was left with a burden of guilt, although it was not I alone who was responsible for its sad withering, nor I who dealt the wretched remnants their coup de grace.
Ten years later, and in a totally unexpected way, I found I was in the flowering of a new relationship. As I moved towards the second marriage I had never expected, I realised I was experiencing being forgiven. Not so much intellectually as practically and spiritually. It was as sweet in my mouth as honey and as refreshing as oranges. It was dawn. It was birth.
I have been trying to make sense of the link between death and forgiveness. The gospels sense it, that is for sure. Jesus forgives, and he heals. People are glad of the healing, shocked at the forgiveness. ‘Which is easier to say?’ he asks the crowd around the paralysed, ‘You are forgiven, or get up and walk?’ He can prove he can do one. But while they can believe a man has the right to heal, only God can forgive. And in John, finally, Jesus forgives Lazarus out of the tomb. And in gratitude for that forgiveness, his sister anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her unbound hair. An act the synoptics keep for a whore, who (they feel) has been forgiven more.
So Jesus, in all four gospels, shocks the authorities into coming after him. By claiming authority which can never really belong to a mere human. (Though, to be fair, he does other things as well in the synoptics to show he arrogates an authority nobody on earth gives him.)
Forgiveness is shocking. It is shocking because of the magnitude of hurt it sets behind itself. Here, I think, lies its inextricable link with death. The burdens of guilt we carry are real, or are usually real. We have done terrible things. People starve because of unfair trade. People die from ‘benefit sanctions’. Girls in British schools bleed into sports socks because nobody can afford sanitary towels or tampons for them. We scream at those we love. We look at our phones and not our children.
These things are bitter and cruel, and they spring out of damage and create more damage. Even when they do not end in an actual death, they all create dark. Even in saying that, we fool ourselves, because often enough real people die. This is less than a tithe of the damage we do, which we are asked to see, and to repent of.
We never see (on this earth anyhow) the full extent of the damage we do. Our repentance is, I think, only capable of being truly fulfilled in the assurance offered by love. It is in the arms of God that we are best able to see the harm we do, and repent of it. To seek a new mind and therefore a new life.
This is, in a way, really unfair, for we are asked to forgive at a higher cost than that at which we receive forgiveness. We are asked to forgive others, who are apparently heedless of the hurt they cause, and who do not repent. It is a hard demand.
We, ourselves, are asked to take a gulp, and it is that same gulp which Jesus took. We are asked to swallow pain and grief. To take our part in the forgiving of things. To offer honey and oranges to those who have really truly hurt us. To let ourselves forget, and where we cannot forget, to let the pain be, to occupy no more of our lives than it has to claim. And where the hurt is new or especially grievous, we cannot forget. There, I believe, the command is to let the wrong be ringed by other, and good, things. To accept death, the death of hopes, and joys, and peace, and to recognise what is left, and what is still good in life, and so not be bound by the evil, but instead to look to a new birth.
That much I knew, but what I have learned is this: in return Forgiveness offers us the same. ‘The past is buried for me,’ she says, ‘Move ahead. Fill your mouth with honey and oranges. Lift your eyes, see the dawn. There is a wholly new, clean birth for you.’ I have come to believe that only when we see our own dawn can we learn how to offer that dawn to others. I think we can have a benign circle, a circle of grace to enjoy as we rise towards joy instead of a spiral into death.
These are, I know, Easter words, unseasonable. But forgiving and forgiven are inextricably linked. The Lenten command to forgive, and the Easter command to be forgiven. This is the very enormity of the offer, which we take with us into Passiontide.
Rosemary Hannah is a historian and author. She lives in Scotland.