We’re anticipating a big anniversary this Sunday: the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Over the next few days there’s going to be a huge media focus on this event: in print, online, on the radio, and especially on TV. It will be very easy for us to get sucked in.
This happened to me after 9/11 itself. The media attention was 24/7, and we were all glued to the coverage for days on end. I spoke about this with a Catholic friend, when at one point in our conversation she asked: “When am I going to start praying?” She realized that she was so immersed in the news of that tragedy, that she’d neglected to lift it up in prayer. Just like me.
Hopefully that won’t happen this year. Indeed, here we are in church, having come together to pray. And through our prayer, we can look back on those terrible events through the eyes of Christ. The media will look back on that day through all sorts of different eyes: survivors and soldiers; policemen and politicians; Manhattanites and Muslims. But in prayer, we can look at it as a Christian.
Tonight we engage in a special form of prayer: adoration. We look upon Christ; we gaze upon the host in which we encounter the Presence of Jesus himself. But this gazing isn’t one-way, because Jesus is also looking upon us. And when he does, he loves what he sees. He can’t help but do that! Jesus is God, God is perfect love, and God can’t deny his own nature. Knowing this can help us to look out upon the world with love- for everything, and everyone. Including the events of 9/11- as hard as that may be.
Think of it this way: God the Father created the world through his Son, and when they were finished they looked upon it and exclaimed: “It is good.” Later, God the Son looked out upon that same world as he hung on a cross. And even in his pain, he looked out upon that world with love. He looked upon those who unjustly condemned him, and he loved them. He looked upon those who hurled scorn and contempt, and he loved them. He looked upon the empty ground where his friends should have been, and he still loved them. He looked upon those who had driven nails into his hands and feet, and not only did he love them, he forgave them for what they had done.
Can we look back upon 9/11 with love and forgive those responsible? Indeed, can we look back upon any painful event with forgiveness, especially toward those who have hurt us most deeply, and most personally? That is our Lord’s invitation to us; that is his challenge to us.
This Sunday, 9/11 itself, our Lord will speak to us through the gospel- the same gospel we heard tonight. Peter asked: “How many times am I to forgive one who hurts me? Seven times?” “No,” Jesus will insist, “Seventy-seven times.” How are we to understand this? Are we to keep score for the times someone has hurt us? Is there to be a limit to our forgiveness, whether it be “three strikes and you’re out” or “seventy-seven strikes and you’re out?” Of course not. God doesn’t ration the forgiveness he showers upon us, and he doesn’t want us to ration the forgiveness we extend to others.
To grasp what Jesus meant, we need to appreciate that the number seven was associated with perfection, and therefore with God, because God is perfect. By teaching us to forgive seventy-seven times, Jesus is driving home the point that we’re to forgive like God forgives: without limit, without restriction, without compromise, without any strings attached. We can’t earn God’s forgiveness, and we shouldn’t expect others to have to earn it from us.
But how can we apply this to 9/11? How can Jesus’ words help us view that event through his eyes? To answer that, we should recall that forgiveness is a decision- it’s a choice to refrain from retaliation, revenge, or a desire to take an eye-for-an-eye. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had some wise words on this score. “An eye for an eye,” he promised, “leaves everyone blind.”
Yet so many wanted to take an eye for an eye after 9/11. Referring to the terrorists, one politician announced: “God may have mercy on you, but we won’t!” That was anger speaking. And it’s normal to feel angry when hurt or attacked. But we can’t that anger harden into bitterness, resentment, or a thirst for revenge. Adding evil to evil is the devil’s work. To bring good out of evil is God’s work, and that’s where we come in. When we forgive, we bring an end to the cycle of violence and hate.
If such forgiveness doesn’t seem fair to us, we’re absolutely right! Forgiveness isn’t fair. An eye-for-an-eye is fair. Strict justice is fair. Through forgiveness, we temper justice with mercy. As has often been said, “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” By God’s free gift of grace, we’re able to not give to others what they justly deserve, through the mercy of forgiveness.
But does being forgiving people turn us into doormats or punching bags? Does it invite someone to hurt us over and over again? Does it encourage terrorists to strike again? Not at all. Forgiveness doesn’t preclude justice. Blessed Pope John Paul II forgave the gunman who tried to assassinate him. But that gunman remained in prison. Dangerous criminals can be forgiven, and kept off the street at the same time. Terrorists can be forgiven, while we still act to protect our nation, and defend the common good.
By forgiving them, however, we let go of the desire for revenge; by forgiving, we can view them and what they did, not through eyes of hate, but through eyes of love. Just as Jesus sees them- he who begs us to love our enemies. Indeed, it is they who are the very measure of our love. Dorothy Day put it well: “I really only love God, as much as I love the person I love the least.”