Project Canterbury

Selfhood and Sacrifice
The Seven Problems of the Atoning Life

Addresses on the Words from the Cross

By the Reverend Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1932.

TO Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our Father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

WILLIAM BLAKE in The Divine Image.


"Verily I say unto thee, Today shah thou be with me in Paradise"--(ST. LUKE 23:43).

REPENTANCE is much harder to cope with than un-repentance. Toward the brazen sinner it is easy for all of us to regard ourselves as having a mandate to evince at least a show of righteous condemnation. We are frequently nonplussed, on the other hand, by repentance. The act of penitence dislocates our preconceptions; it disturbs our scheme of the arrangement of things. Something has stolen a march on us, and in the act of sizing up the situation we see it suddenly reversing itself and becoming something entirely different. Also, the arousing of the emotion of compassion plays havoc with the Anglo-Saxon; his feelings conquer him, and lead him into a folly of over-generosity which he may live to regret and to condemn himself for having betrayed. When one meets with the effrontery of sheer, open unashamedness, there is not so grave a problem. Repentance, however, disarms us--often even of our righteousness. So devastating an experience is that self-reversal which is repentance, that we are immediately conscious of acute discomfort when we are confronted by it, whether in ourselves or even more certainly in another. We do not know how to deal with it. We might be tempted to a loftiness of condescension, which--if we have the slightest trace of a sense of humor--will negate any power of immediate action, save of the grandiose sort. We may also experience a sneaking and furtive admiration for the repentant person; he has eluded our grasp because he has ceased to be on our level. So the ordinary alternatives become either ill-advised action, completely out of proportion and irrelevant, or else a paralysis of the faculties of action, suddenly arrested, dismayed, and confounded. What was it that our Lord did in the face of penitence?

It is so hard to be dispassionate when confronted by contrition. True contrition asks so little but needs so much. It is just this in the penitent thief's attitude to Jesus which was so utterly appealing: he did not try to bargain; he acknowledged the justice of his punishment with an open-eyed recognition of the facts--"we indeed justly"; he expressed for his impenitent colleague the verdict of his own conscience, "Dost thou not fear God?" It was an avowal of his fundamental faith in God's own righteousness compared to which his own unrighteousness stood condemned. He gave expression, too, to his conviction of our Lord's innocence--an innocence which, unjustly condemned, glaringly showed up the guilt of the two thieves: "Seeing that thou art in the same condemnation." The ferocious quality of the fact staggered him--not the fact of his own sin but of our Lord's sinlessness. Then came the appeal to be "remembered."

There is an unexpected fineness in the penitent thief. In his own agony he has the insight to perceive the situation as a whole, abstracted from its intimate bearing on his own lot. He could still see objectively and detachedly, regardless of the misery oppressing him. He could penetrate to the facts despite the overwhelming power of his afflictions. He could bear witness to what was true--his guilt, the Tightness of his punishment, the goodness of God, and the innocence of Jesus--even though it gained him nothing. The penetration with which this condemned criminal pierced to the heart of the whole case exceeds the insight of many "good" people. The nature and courageous detachedness of his outlook is in strong contrast to the self-regarding point of view of all too many "pious" folk. He concluded with no plea and levied no claim for sympathy, pity, or even compassion. True contrition claims naught, demands naught, urges nothing. It trusts too deeply to urge more than the weight of the facts themselves. There is little self-regardingness in mature contrition.

How strange it is to be thinking of the thief as a model of penitence! The lessons from the Cross are many, but one might almost say that the better expression would be "lessons from the crosses." Surely in the penitent thief our Lord found a contrition not inadequate to the boon He conferred: "Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." His attitude and action are no tour-de-force of the spiritual world. "The Lord freely forgave him the debt." Forgiveness is just and righteous because it deals with men as if they were capable of changing, and itself assists to change them. One cannot forgive that which by nature cannot be other than it is: a person cannot give forth of his personality to less than a person, since he who is incapable of the change from worse to better is less than a person. Personality is dynamic and not static; forgiveness is creative not judicial. God's forgiveness achieves in us what it pronounces. When a prisoner at the dock is adjudged guilty or innocent, the sentence claims only to ratify the fact. When God forgives us, His outgoing verdict on us first proclaims that we are forgivable, and second in proclaiming the pardon achieves that which it states. As contrition is in us, so pardon operates on us--dynamically and creatively. The thief who repented could be forgiven, for penitence made him forgivable, and outgoing love from our Lord could find lodgment in him.

Forgiveness is of the essence of the Christian art of living. It is the reaching out of the self to another-than-self, by which barriers are broken down, negations cancelled, resistances overcome, and union established. It can only exist as from person to person. Nothing less than human can be the recipient of forgiveness, nor can aught less than man truly repent and be contrite. "Justice" is both set aside and abrogated, and also transcended in the whole transaction. Forgiveness is a rule of the relationships between man and man because it is the regulative reaction of God to man. Where He sets the norm we can have no better Guide for our own behavior. Where He sees man as dynamic instead of static, capable of that development by which evil is outgrown and good that into which man can grow, we cannot be content with any lower estimate of human nature. If forgiveness on God's part involves a risk--a risk of faith--we may not shirk the obligation of incurring the same risk in dealing with our brethren. Where the Supreme Artist in life has depicted the ideal we may not seek to avoid the attempt to conform to it, assured and guaranteed by the fact: He forgave the penitent thief. "Neither do I condemn thee" is the negative side of our Lord's attitude to contrition. "Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise" is its positive side.

Suppose you found the missal from the altar of your church broken, besmirched, and torn, cast upon a refuse heap, covered with mud and garbage. You remember that the book had been used innumerable times at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice on the altar. How reverently had its pages been turned; how carefully and lovingly the places marked for the reading of Mass! Within its pages it bears the Word of God spoken and uttered for the hearing of man, and the words of men to be spoken to the ear of God. Now it lies--defiled and degraded! Could such an anomaly ever come to pass? The imagination repudiates it as impossible and preposterous. A book consecrated and dedicated to God's worship thrown aside, discarded, and cast forth into the company of the filth of a dust bin! Yet when we leave the figure to one side and turn our attention to the condition its use as illustration suggests, our sense of preposterous unreality fades, paradoxically enough, before the hard reality: each man, bearing God's image and empowering Word, who has fallen low into sin, challenges our sympathy and stimulates, with the urgency of his need, every sentiment within us for rescuing him. We should not leave the altar book in the refuse pile. Nay more--we should be shocked, dismayed, and grieved to find it there. Our feelings would prompt immediate action. We would fain rescue it and do what we could for its more decent disposal. Now the parable is this: the man in need of repentance is like the cast-off missal. He bears within himself the very Word of God imprinted in his nature--nay more: he is made in God's own image and likeness. His life has been at times in closer contact with God than even the altar book at the Mass. Like it he may seem to have been discarded, to be like it, besmirched and foul, torn and marred--yet when we can make ourselves aware of his true association our disposition toward his restoration will be no inactive thing. We could not leave the missal in the muck. It would violate our every sense. We would go out toward the situation, in indignation that such a thing could come to pass; in activity--to alter the condition by changing it. How much the more should we not endeavor constantly to restimulate our passion to see in all men, who need God's pardon, the very same desire to "seek and save the lost," the exercise which our conscience would have exigently demanded of us in the case of the altar book! The disposition to go forth from ourselves, actively and energetically--to give of self, of thought, interest, care, and action--toward God's sons and daughters who have fallen from their high estate of intimate contact with Him, this is part of the attitude of forgiveness which we should ask of our Lord to stir up in us.

The truly forth-giving spirit is creative and dynamic. The disposition to forgive assists materially in eliciting forgivability. It was always a characteristic of our Lord. He sought to disarm Pharisaic opposition by the plea that "they that were whole had no need of a physician," and in so doing showed that His attitude was not adopted but merely belonged to Him as a fundamental outlook on life. The assurance of the disposition to forgive breaks the barrier within the inarticulate soul longing to express penitence. Penitence can be stimulated by the attitude which, far from retiring within itself, goes forth to the needy soul and exerts that touch of power by which a temper of contrition becomes expressed in penitence.

Three things impede this true freedom of the Christian to give and go forth from himself: lack of understanding and of sympathy, and positively fear. Of these three the greatest is fear. Fear is one trait completely absent from our Lord's life. When there is security, confidence, serenity, when there is a full cognizance of the all-significance of God and His will, there is love--and "perfect love casteth out fear" (I John 4: 18). There is a word in the famous passage in Philippians which has always been very significant to me. I have already alluded to it in connection with the First Word. It is translated a "thing to be grasped at"--awkward enough at best! What was His by nature could not be taken away by chance. What was really His needed no claim or effort to encompass. Confidence comes from the full recognition of our relationship with God. Founded neither in merit and desert, achieved through no process of endeavor and action, secured by God's own willed verdict, this basic fact of the believer's status should determine the ground work of all his relations in life. The constant exercise in re-appreciating our baptism ought to be a normal part of Christian devotion. Nothing could be more potent and efficacious in delivering us from the fear which doth so easily beset us. Fear means preoccupation with our own safety, and concern about our status. When we have come to realize that our position is secure in the vast world of which God is Master, the exigency of a situation in the here and now is reduced to its proper proportions. No keen edge of circumstance, no sharp cut of human weapon, can wound us seriously enough to dissever us from the ultimate root of our security in God. That conviction of security held by faith will liberate the soul. It is a declaration of independence. His "service which is perfect freedom" will deliver us from those preoccupations, worries, anxieties, and cares into which we pour so much energy that nothing is left over for others. True faith must win for us a freedom from fear.

When we have found the path to this freedom, we can then be free to understand. Without understanding it is hard to put ourselves in the other man's place. Fearlessness will induce in us a desire to understand. It is so discouraging to come upon not the superficial expression but the deep-lying attitude represented by the words: "I cannot understand how he could do that." If you really were honest with yourself, if you had taken the trouble to discover why you acted so unworthily, if you were patient and candid enough to estimate all the factors in a situation where you had come off so badly, then you could not only understand how and why your brother stands in need of forgiveness, but your heart would go out to him in comprehending sympathy. One of our terribly dangerous spiritual ills is our hardness. I mean by that to describe the apparent lack of sympathy and of plain human compassion that is often manifested by devout people. In order to protect the principles of our spiritual life and its regimen, we often feel driven to set up walls to separate us from others who do not believe as we do. All too often the barrier built up to shut the world out shuts us in. It is rather hard to see how it could be otherwise, yet paradoxically enough the wall should not sunder us from our brethren but rather unite us to them in their needs. It must not be without plenty of doors. Nay--it must, sooner or later, cease entirely to serve as a separation; it must come down, like scaffolding on a building in process of construction. Needed at one stage in our growth, it will become a positive hindrance if it survives its usefulness. The test will be for the progress of our spiritual lives: does each new discovery of God's tender mercy to me make me the more tender, forbearing, understanding, and compassionate to others?

The parable of the Unmerciful Servant enshrines a vital principle for our spiritual lives. "If ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses," our Lord tells us, we cannot be the recipients of God's forgiveness to us. His self-giving to us is conditioned by our power of receptivity. He can give only in accordance with capacity to receive. We cannot claim to conduct our relations with Him on the plane of grace and mercy, and still keep on the level of alleged "justice" and legalism with our fellowmen. There is throughout the process the most delicately adjusted sliding-scale, for we speak of the relations subsisting between persons. There is no rule of thumb. Legalism as a principle has vanished, even if it necessarily remain as a method. If God can give only according to our capacity to receive, we can receive only as we are able to give. Cold piety and chilly devotion, inhuman religiosity and frigidly wooden goodness, must all be swept clean out of our lives. We must become at least completely human to be able to receive the loving forgiveness of God.

"He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen," St. John tells us, "how can he love God whom he hath not seen" (I John 4: 20)? It is another way of phrasing the same principle of outgoing self impartation, of which--in the event of need--one essential element is the steady and unremitting disposition to forgive. No Christian can be less than human in his relations with his fellowmen. Just so soon as we catch ourselves arguing in such wise as manifests, consciously or unconsciously, the hard unresilient legalism of inadequate "justice" (on which we are all too prone to justify our attitude), we must instantly realize that we have in such conduct and disposition descended to a sub-Christian level. "What have I done to deserve such treatment as that?" "It is intolerable that I should put up with that sort of imposition and not resent it." Such reactions in the face of wrong lead us gradually away from our Lord's position to one which is really not grown up, a regression from spiritual adulthood and maturity to self-regarding pettiness. There is a world of difference between child-likeness and childishness, and in our weaker moments we are often disposed to confound the latter with the former.

"Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." There is therefore no end so long as life shall last to the large possibility of restoration, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Lest men should despair, we have often heard, God has given us an example of eleventh hour repentance; lest we presume, He has given us but one such example. But what an example it is! The superb candor, the frank and classic detachedness, the proclamation of faith, affirmation of justice, exhortation to fear (for the penitent thief well knew how hopeless would be a loftier appeal), and the honest and reverent plea not to be forgotten--these are characteristics of a maturity not too often met with among people of spiritual insight. There was no self-consciousness in him, nor any trace of self-pity or of the disposition to distribute blame. Whatever had been his past such a one was not unprepared for the power of God to rush into his life to cleanse, strengthen, quicken, and regenerate.

Let us take more careful note of these qualities of his contrition. True penitence is sensitive to and aware of the presence of the Holy, first of all. It was that which stirred the good thief to his avowal. When he saw and heard from the same viewpoint as did our Lord, what He did and said, to whom His attention was directed, and observing comprehended in a flash the sheer holiness of his Fellow Criminal, he could no longer withhold speech. Compassion without sentimentality, secondly, marks his relationship to Jesus. He shared His Passion, and learned as he suffered with the Son of Man. Enforced compassion is a hard teacher, but the lessons so learned are not lightly taught or superficially received. Thirdly, he made no attempt at a bargain with the universe. In modern language, he was a realist through and through, with this difference that the good thief's realism comprised not only apparent realities but the one truest Reality--God-made-Man. His horizon was that of the world as it is--with God on the Cross beside him--and a grimly real world it was, too! Fourthly, he declared himself and bore witness, not as if challenged (though his fellow thief's words may have been so regarded), but because he could no longer withhold speech: God was righteous; we merit this punishment for our sins; but bad as we are, innocence and goodness are not veiled from our eyes: "This Man hath done nothing amiss." Fifthly, he asks merely to be remembered. Lastly, note how the thief's words are a revelation of his character--as is all penitence and contrition. Never do we more clearly reveal our true selves than when we seek reconciliation with the finest and most splendid thing we are capable of perceiving. Every act of penitence is a manifestation of the springs of our action, of the guiding principles of our conduct.

What a preposterous religion the Catholic faith really is! Could you conceive of a religion that had the effrontery to present to its adherents a bad citizen and a condemned criminal as a model of contrition? How Christianity violates the canons and standards of worldly respectability! The revolutionary quality of the whole of the faith can be seen at almost any point one fastens upon: from the Nativity to the Resurrection, from Annunciation to the Mission of the Holy Spirit it is all of a piece--a preposterous, impossible, stunningly subversive thing, which unhappily we've tried to tame, water down, whittle away. Its wild quality we cannot ultimately bring under the yoke of our demands. Its pungent strength no dilution will destroy. Its sheer solid hardness betrays the touch of chisel and knife which in paring away reveals the yawning gap where excision has taken place. Who knows but that in reconciling the thief to Himself the Son of Man was indicting the whole of that order by which a saint-in-the-making was viewed as a condemned criminal? Society has slain better men than the penitent thief, and it was not Jesus who was on trial before the world but the world which condemned itself in sending Him to Calvary.

Forgiveness is a law of the atoning life. The thief could be forgiven because he became forgivable, but Jesus' disposition to give forth helped create the capacity to receive His pardon. Men are dynamic and not static: simply because we have done or been such and such does not compel us to remain that sort of person. The fact that John Jones stole does not entitle us to call him a thief. To condemn is a different act than the assertion of a fact: that he stole may be a fact; that he is therefore in essential quality a thief is a verdict of judgment--which is very likely not true at all. The John Jones who stole may, given proper eliciting conditions, become the sort of person who no longer steals, and our judgment of him as a thief is not only untrue but possibly an irreparable injustice. Forgiveness is a going forth of the personality to another, as creative, fruitful, and productive an act as that of contrition. Both are also revelations--of capacity, of the outreaching self, and of atoning power.

"There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth." Yes, very true--but not necessarily on earth! The unbeliever resents repentance, for it mixes up his scheme of things, disarms him of his offensive weapons of judgment and self-esteem, and once more confuses him by the act of escape from the pigeonhole into which by his judgment he would fain have put the sinner. Above all, the act of contrition must become what the penitent thief displayed: a mature and adult spirituality, seeking and claiming nought, recognizing and proclaiming God's righteousness, the sinfulness of sin, and the holiness of innocence, and asking but one thing--the attention of divine compassion.

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