What could be more essential to life than breathing — or forgiving?
Breathing and forgiving: One follows the other. Forgiveness, as Jesus makes clear throughout his earthly ministry, is part of the deal for all who call themselves his disciples.
Such as in the Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday, when Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).
“All Jesus does is breathe forgiveness,” says Franciscan Father Richard Rohr in his book, “The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder.”
“It’s interesting,” Father Rohr continues, “that Jesus identifies forgiveness with breathing, the one thing that we have done constantly since we were born and will do until we die. He says God’s forgiveness is like breathing. Forgiveness is not apparently something God does; it is who God is. God can do no other.”
Forgiveness is something we seek and offer, as is clear at each Sunday Mass.
In the penitential rite, we confess our sins, we beseech the prayers of Mary and we hear the presider ask, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and bring us to everlasting life.”
In our profession of faith, we proclaim our belief “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”
And when we pray the Our Father, we ask the Lord “to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespass against us.”
Many years ago, I heard a priest use a good share of his homily to address this last phrase — “as we forgive those who have trespass against us.” He suggested that if we didn’t feel the need to forgive someone for however he or she may have offended us, we didn’t have to, because we have God-given free will, right?
“But,” the priest added, raising and shaking his finger, “don’t expect forgiveness for what you have done if you’re not going to forgive someone for what they have done to you. Forgiveness has to work both ways or it doesn’t work at all.”
If we hold on to the hate, the bitterness, the anger attached to an offense committed against us — real or perceived — who does that hurt? Hint: not the offender.
And even if we feel ready to forgive, we often aren’t sure that the offender wants or is even aware of the need for forgiveness.
What I have learned — slowly, I admit — is that if I want to move forward in my life, I need to let go of the negative feelings that come with being offended. I need to make peace with my offender.
I need to acknowledge that this person, no matter how serious and hurtful the offense, is a creation and child of God like myself, and for that reason alone deserves to be treated with the respect and dignity that all of God’s creation deserves. That includes offering forgiveness.
Which isn’t to say that forgiveness means we tell our offender, “Hey, whatever, no problem,” any more than we should expect the same response from those whose forgiveness we seek.
We would hope that the action of forgiving is accompanied by a sincere resolve and effort to change for the better.
No, we can’t control how others respond. But we can choose to move forward and not “retain,” as Jesus said, the anger, bitterness and hurt.
Think of the responsorial psalm for Pentecost Sunday: “Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.” Exactly how does the Spirit renew the face of the earth?
Through us, it would seem. Pentecost Sunday’s first reading reminds us that the descent of the “tongues of fire” upon the disciples of Jesus so filled them with the Holy Spirit that they began chattering in different languages “of the mighty acts of God.”
Soon those disciples “moved forward” to spread the good news — to breathe new life into a world that needed renewal. Sound familiar?
Indeed, in these times when so much vitriol and vilification is in our midst, what could happen if each of us took time to really reflect upon the hurts we’ve been dealt and made a serious effort to “breathe some forgiveness” into this world?
I know one thing: When I am able to forgive or when I am forgiven something very powerful and wonderful takes place inside me. I feel like I can breathe, as if a great weight has been lifted off my chest.
Letting go of anger and bitterness and hurt is an amazing gift to myself. When I forgive, I have let God into my life in a way that heals and renews.
The Pentecost sequence phrases it nicely:
“You, of comforters the best; You, the soul’s most welcome guest; sweet refreshment here below; in our labor, rest most sweet; grateful coolness in the heat; solace in the midst of woe.”
Yes, come, Holy Spirit, come!
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Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.