3rd Week of Lent: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
The young woman sitting in my office was recounting to me all the times she had been physically and sexually abused by her father. Before his death, he had been a heavy drinker and drug-addict. He had never married this woman's mother and only showed his face at home when he needed money. Before ransacking the house looking for goods to sell, he would beat the girl and her mother, and more often than not, rape one or the other or both. Without fail, he would return later in the week, crying, begging for forgiveness and promising to never hurt either of them again. He never kept this promise. He died of an overdose while serving a prison sentence for drug possession. The young woman was in my office, telling me this horror story because she wanted me to tell her how to forgive him. I had no idea what to say, so I asked instead, “Why do you want to forgive him?” She said, “Because he is my father, and I love him.” Better than I could then and even now, she understood the power of sacrificial love to push the wounded soul to forgiveness.
Azariah finds himself in a very different predicament. From the flames of the furnace, he promises to honor his God on the altar of his contrite heart. He has no first fruits, no incense, no bull to offer; no priest for the sacrifice. He has nothing to give but his life, so he prays: “. . .let our sacrifice be in your presence today. . .for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame. . .Deliver us by your wonders, and bring glory to your name, O Lord.” Facing an agonizing death, Azariah's love for God does not falter on the off-chance that his ruler will spare him if he only recants his faith. Rather than cry out for vengeance against his murderer, Azariah cries out to God for rescue, offering the one victim that makes every sacrifice of the altar holy: the undivided, wholly surrendered, and contrite heart of the lover. “Let us be received,” he prays, “as though we were burnt offerings.”
The young woman said that she wanted to forgive her father because she loved him. I asked her, “Is your love for him now forgiveness enough?” She said, “No. If I forgive him, then everything he did was O.K. It's like saying he did nothing wrong.” I didn't know how to explain to her that she could forgive him without condoning his crimes, that she could sacrifice her pain without celebrating his sin. How could I tell her that her desire to forgive him was also a desire to be forgiven her hatred of him and what he had done? Jesus tells us that if we want to be forgiven, then we must forgive. He says that we will be forgiven our sins in exactly the same way that we forgive those who have sinned against us. The sacrifice we must make is to release the grip we have on the sins committed against us. Held too closely and too tightly, these sins will turn rancid and poison us.
Azariah doesn't pray for vengeance. He prays for rescue and offers his humbled spirit in sacrifice. The young woman in my office loves her father but cannot sacrifice the wounds he has inflicted on her. Azariah doesn't burn in the furnace because he holds nothing against his persecutors. There is nothing in him that is not already burned away. The young woman desires to forgive, but she still clings to her father's sins and there is much left to burn.
Jesus teaches us the truth: we cannot forgive if we do not sacrifice; we cannot be forgiven if we ourselves will not forgive.
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