Forgive Us . . . As We ForgiveSCOTT HAHN
The “Our Father” is a prayer of limitless depth. Taken all at once, it can be overwhelming. So it’s good for us to take the time, as we have been doing, to meditate upon each of the prayer’s petitions individually.
We must, however, avoid the temptation to look at each petition as if it were thematically separate from the others. There is a unity to the Lord's Prayer, and its petitions follow a certain logical progression. We can see this most vividly as we move from "[g]ive us this day our daily bread" (Mt. 6:11) to "forgive us our trespasses" (cf. Mt. 6:12).
It's no accident that Jesus paired these petitions in a single sentence. There is a logical link between "our daily bread" and our forgiveness. For among the chief effects of the "daily bread" Christ has given us in Holy Communion is the complete remission of all our venial sins.
The Mass is a sacrifice, and so the "daily bread" is a daily offering for sin, like those prefigured in the Temple of ancient Israel. St. Justin Martyr spelled this out clearly, around 150 A.D., in language that echoes the Lord's Prayer. Israel's offering of fine flour, he wrote, "which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God . . . for delivering us from the evil."1
As Above, So Below
Our bodies long for food; our souls long for God, and this Bread is both food and God. Thus, It meets the needs of both the bodies and the souls of God's children. How does this happen? The Catechism gives us this insight: "As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins" (no. 1394, original emphasis).
This is more than a mere absolving of debts. This "living charity" is the gift of God's life. In Holy Communion, we are made holy because we are "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). For holiness is not just obedience. Only God is holy. Any holiness we have, we have through the life we share in communion with the Trinity. Jesus Himself quoted the psalm: "You are gods" (Jn. 10:34; cf. Ps. 82:6)! This divine life we could never achieve on our own; we can only receive it as a gift from God. "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Pet. 1:16; cf. Lev. 11:44-45).
Sin is incompatible with this life, this holiness, this living charity. We cannot live the life of the Trinity, as "sons in the Son," unless we are sinless as He is sinless. Said St. John Chrysostom: "[T]o call God 'Father' is the profession of a blameless life."2 Thus, when grace encounters sin in our souls, something has to give way. The grace of our "daily bread" takes out our sin from above.
Our Lord would have us take out sin from below as well. Thus, He teaches us to place a condition on God's forgiveness: "Forgive us . . . as we forgive those who trespass against us" (cf. Mt. 6:12). We must not pray too quickly here; it's all too easy for us to miss the sheer impossibility of this condition. For as we read in the Gospel "[w]ho can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mk. 2:7). Forgiveness is an action that is purely divine.
Jesus is asking us here to live the divine life that we have received. "[A]s he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves" (1 Pet. 1:15). To forgive is what it means to be divinized. We're not just forgiving because we believe our offenders' apologies are sincere and they won't trouble us again because sometimes they're not sincere, sometimes they don't even bother to say they're sorry, and often they sin against us again and again. But God forgives us when we apologize halfheartedly and when we become repeat offenders.
So we forgive as God forgives, in imitation not only of the quantity but also the quality of His forgiveness. Like God, we forgive, not merely by forgetting, but by loving. It is the heat of God's love that melts the ice of our sin; and so it is the heat of our love that will bring about the forgiveness of those who trespass against us. We don't just remit their debts; we love our enemies into wholeness, as God has done to us. We melt their cold hearts, the ice of their sin. Such forgiveness is an action purely divine, even when it's done by humans. Such forgiveness is possible only by humans who are being divinized.
We forgive as we've been forgiven. We forgive as God forgives. Only then should we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others.
This is how we take out sin from below by extending the divine life we have received from above.
This petition of the Lord's Prayer helps us to acquire the right attitude about ourselves and our fallen humanity, our need for forgiveness, and our potential for divinization.
Sin is something that afflicts all of us. We all sin; we are all the victims of the sins of others. Adam, the original sinner, was himself sinned against by the serpent. The Scriptures tell us that even the just man falls seven times a day (cf. Prov. 24:16).
By placing a plea for forgiveness on our lips, the Lord's Prayer humbles us and forces us to confront a truth that we'd rather avoid. For it can be as difficult for us to notice our own sins as it is easy for us to see the sins of others. Our own faults are trifling (or so we like to think), but others' faults are glaring. "Why," asked Jesus, "do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" (Mt. 7:3).
We cannot pray the Our Father honestly without acknowledging the logs in our own eyes and promising to overlook the specks in our brother's eye. We should make excuses for the faults of others at least as much as we do for our own faults.
To err is human that is certainly true but to forgive is divine. When we forgive, we act as God acts. We forgive others as we have been forgiven first.
Scott Hahn. "Forgive Us . . . As We Forgive." Lay Witness (March/April 2003).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Scott Hahn received his Bachelor of Arts degree with a triple-major in Theology, Philosophy and Economics from Grove City College, Pennsylvania, in 1979, his Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982, and his Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from Marquette University in 1995. Scott has ten years of youth and pastoral ministry experience in Protestant congregations (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas and Virginia) and is a former Professor of Theology at Chesapeake Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. He entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 1986.
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