In my last assignment there was a women’s group in the parish that would host a brunch each year to which they would invite a speaker. One year they invited a woman named Jennifer Hubbard. Jennifer is from Newtown, CT and in December 2014 her daughter Catherine Violet was murdered along with 19 other children and 6 staff members by a disturbed young man at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Jennifer writes a regular column in the publication Magnificat, sharing her experience of working through the terrible grief of losing her daughter, but also sharing the hope that she professes in God’s love that somehow makes things whole again in the end. Her writings are remarkable, and the women who had gathered to hear her speak that morning hung on her every word. After she gave her talk, she gave them the opportunity to ask her questions. One of the women said to her: “You talk a lot about forgiveness. But… how could you forgive the man who did this?” With a smile that betrayed some sadness, Jennifer responded: “How could I not?”
The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We usually pray these words unthinkingly. When we examine them more closely, however, we realize how challenging this petition is. To ask the Lord for pardon is a pretty straightforward thing. But to realize that we must forgive in order to receive forgiveness is something altogether different. We might imagine ourselves standing before Him, our consciences greatly burdened, our sins revealed to us, as we say: “Have mercy on me, Lord.” Then we hear Him say to us: “But what about x? What about y? Will you have mercy on them for what they did to you?” In this petition it is as though He is inviting us to stand in His place, and grant to those who have hurt us most the very thing we seek from God for ourselves.
There is great suffering involved in forgiving those who have truly hurt us, especially when they exhibit no interest in reconciliation or regret for what they have done. Jennifer’s words that day about forgiveness did not gloss over the pain that she experienced because of the terrible evil done to her child, pain that threatened to destroy everything in her life. She confessed that there are still days in which she can’t get out of bed. Yet, she continues to ask for and receive the grace to persevere in her commitment to forgive. She bears that mercy as a cross, something that hurts but which united to Christ liberates us from the destructive power of hatred and heals all things.
From the cross, Our Lord cries out: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Unless we agree to bear the cross of mercy ourselves, we cannot begin to understand these words and what they mean for us. If we do accept the grace to bear the cross of mercy, we will begin to understand them. But it is a grace. We need the help of Christ to pray this petition and mean it. We find that grace in a special way in the sacrament of Reconciliation. When we go to confession and confess the effects of the struggle to forgive – and confess it over and over again – a beautiful thing happens. We understand our need for mercy more. We recognize how helpless we feel against our sin. And, please God, we will resolve again and again to come to the help of those who are helpless in their sins against us, and forgive them.
Here is a reflection on Lent by Jennifer Hubbard that was published in Magnificat a while back. If you do not subscribe to Magnificat, I highly recommend it. It’s a great publication.
The Season of Lent by Jennifer Hubbard
Year after year, something about the brilliant light beaming off every surface took my breath away. As it did then and still does, its radiance and warmth fills me with an indescribable peace. There was a time when I convinced myself that if my home shone in a similar fashion then my restless soul would be settled and then, then, I would feel whole. In my naiveté, I resolved Lent would be focused on making my home shine like the church on Easter Sunday. I worked my way through the house, perplexed with beautiful treasures that had been hidden away, saddened by things broken and not yet fixed, and surprised by the mars and scratches I had stopped noticing. At times the mess I created in my quest for peace overwhelmed. At others, I was determined only to see my plan through. Over time I realized—it was not my home I wanted made brilliant; it was my heart. I have come to understand that the state of my heart is not defined by my actions, my striving, or even my accomplishments, but by my willingness to seek the mars and scratches, by acknowledging my brokenness, and by my readiness to surrender to the only One who can make my heart anew. Our loving Father awaits me in these moments, meets me in my vulnerability, and forgives me my trespasses. Lent offers us all a time to reflect, recognize, and repent—to lean in, draw closer, and to make ready our hearts to receive the brilliance and grace which Easter morning brings.
(Jennifer Hubbard resides in Newtown, Conn. The younger of her two children, Catherine Violet, was a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.)