By sheer chance — or, perhaps, Providence — two readings at Roman Catholic Masses on this day of commemoration for the victims of an evil act focus on forgiveness.
The first was from the Book of Sirach, which read in part:
Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside.
The Gospel reading from Matthew begins: “Peter approached Jesus and asked him, ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.’ ” (This passage has also been widely translated as “seventy times seven.”)
The priest in the parish I attended today then gave a powerful sermon on Sept. 11 and forgiveness. It was powerful precisely because it was not sentimental and did not pretend that forgiveness is easy. Indeed, it is far less demanding for those of us who did not lose a loved one 10 years ago even to ponder forgiveness. And since I am not a pacifist, I do not think forgiveness entails a rejection of retaliation designed to make future attacks less likely. (My pacifist friends may be purer of heart than I am.)
But what I came away with this morning was the sense that forgiveness, finally, should not be seen as a sign of weakness, but as an act of strength, confidence and hope.
Among the many powerful reflections on the meaning of this anniversary, one of the most moving I have heard came from Leon Wieseltier at the New Republic event “9/11: An Evening of Remembrance and Reflection” at the Kennedy Center last Thursday. Perhaps because thinking about the meaning of love is a kind of antidote to the act of hatred we ponder today, I’d like to share just one passage from his comments:
Though we encounter it as suffering, grief is in fact an affirmation. The indifferent do not grieve, the uncommitted do not grieve, the loveless do not grieve. We mourn only the loss of what we have loved and what we have valued, and in this way mourning darkly refreshes our knowledge of the causes of our loves and the reasons for our values. Our sorrow restores us to the splendors of our connectedness to people and to principles. It is the yes of a broken heart. In our bereavement we discover how much was ruptured by death, and also how much was not ruptured.