Of bones, toothbrushes and dazzled eyes

  • April 3, 2012

In response to the question “How do I forgive?” I was given this answer: “By going against every bone in your body.” Forgiveness contradicts many basic inclinations, if we’re honest. It’s more natural to strike back, seek revenge, build stone walls. Forgive the one who inflicted harm? We might ask not only “how” but “why”? 

Yet, astonishingly, forgiveness happens, in small ways and large. More than once, I’ve heard someone say, “I knew I had to forgive or I was going to die, so I forgave.”

Somehow, despite all the pain and struggle, forgiveness breaks through, the real thing, like those first tulips breaking up through the winter soil.

I’ve discovered there are tulips of forgiveness abloom all over the place. What seemed the barren earth of pain and violence turns out to be a garden. It reminds me of another garden — the one Mary Magdalene entered before dawn on the third day after Jesus’ death, as we read on Easter Sunday morning. Wasn’t it really a graveyard? Wasn’t it where the disciples’ hope was crushed, where their master’s broken humiliated body was laid in a borrowed tomb, all His promises of forgiveness and mercy annihilated in ignominy with Him?


She hears and turns. Emerging out of pain and death, despair and betrayal, she sees something, someone. Seeking a dead person, she is met by a living one; not that He never died, but that He has burst out from the tomb, through and beyond death. No wonder she cannot recognize Him until He calls her by name.

She comes to see that the graveyard is a garden, the gardener is the Saviour, the lock of the tomb is broken and death itself is changed. She sees now with the eyes of the heart, purified and strengthened to behold what was always there: God’s forgiveness and mercy, God’s Word, in the flesh. 

In the deep dark days of Lent, amid fasting, praying and almsgiving, a woman showed me this same Easter light. My eyes are still dazzled by it. The woman, Joan, has been enduring many kinds of unendurable suffering for the past weeks and months. A single mother, she’s been living on little for some time. One of her children has been in and out of hospital with an illness that so far has eluded medical science. Another child, who recently suffered a violent trauma, she fears is suicidal, and possibly addicted to certain substances; she’s learned far more about police officers and social workers than she ever cared to. As a mother, she agonizes with her children and is tormented by self-recrimination and second-guessing herself. A life-long Christian, she expressed to me some of her battle with God and faith, in the midst of anguish and uncertainty. Her Lenten days have been studded with challenges that would harden anyone’s heart.

She spoke to me of these things and more that have assaulted her, one after another. And then she told me that during this time of unimaginable pain, something happened. Christ came to meet her in a way she’s never known before, real and recognizable. Not an idea, but a living person. Her heart was made tender, not hard. Like St. Paul, she can say, without ever having walked with Jesus of Nazareth in His life on Earth: “I have seen Jesus our Lord” (1 Cor 9:1).

How could she experience such an encounter in such a moment?

Like St. Paul, too, she’s charged with telling and showing others what she witnessed, as she told me, as Mary Magdalene told the apostles. It may be confusing and frightening, as we hear in St. Mark’s Resurrection narrative proclaimed during the Easter Vigil. Aren’t we too small to proclaim such a great truth to a world too hardened to hear it? 

We’re hard to convince, too. We’re used to being tricked, deceived. Journalist Charles Duhigg writes that years ago, when tooth-brushing was a rare habit, toothpaste sellers made a bold move. They decided to add chemicals that don’t help the teeth at all, but do give a tingly, sparkling feeling. They emphasized the bad feeling before using their toothpaste, and the great feeling after. And tooth-brushing became a common habit.

We humans are accustomed to marketing ploys and manipulation. We become wary and hard-hearted. Flinty though we may be, God found us worth the effort, pouring infinite love into us at great price. 

How do we Christians advertise the Good News of forgiveness, mercy, God’s Word raised from the dead, to a hard world? Not by marketing ploys and manipulation. Only by personal witness, as Joan did with me.

By forgiving as we are forgiven. Our own parishes and families can be powerful agents of mercy, concrete, immediate. We don’t have to do it alone, any more than the first disciples did; we have each other, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our shared witness brings to a bitter world a sweet voice.