In Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Miserables we see the figure of Jean Valjean, a man whose struggle to live and to feed his family during hard times turns him into an enemy of the law and a veritable outcast in society. Living as a common thief, a criminal, in one of his forays he comes upon the elderly Bishop Myriel of Digne, who invites him to spend the night in his home. Despite of the generous gesture, Valjean helps himself to the cleric’s silverware at the first possible chance given him, in the dead of night. He flees from his patron’s home with the booty, but is caught (like other times) and is brought back by the police to the Bishop so that the latter may be able to identify Valjean as the thief who did away with his silver. Imagine the surprise of all when the bishop declares that indeed it was his silver that Valjean had brought along with him, and that it had been given to him by the bishop as a gift, and as such, no charges ought to be leveled against the man.
Valjean had lived through this many times in his long career as a thief; his heart had been hardened against the condemnation hurled against him by other people; he expected nothing new for him after his capture. But the bishop’s attitude catches him by surprise, and the warmth of the prelate’s forgiveness thaws the icy indifference that had hardened the criminal’s heart for so long. So far nobody had shown him any compassion and forgiveness. His experience with the Bishop changes and transforms him into a repentant, dignified, and honorable man. He becomes kind to all he encounters. Though on the wrong side of the law, in the novel he comes to represent the best traits of humanity., all because of this experience of the goodness of a man of God.
In the consciousness of Israel, most especially as a people called particularly to be God’s own portion, lies the experience of God’s holiness. God is holy, and this sanctity the Lord ahs manifested to them time and again throughout the course of history. This experience of the holiness of the Lord is such that it marks them as a people: they have to be holy after the Lord who called them to peculiarly his own. Being holy after the Lord means that they would have to avoid that would be offensive to the holiness of God; this would entail also that time and again they would have to ask for His pardon and mercy, not only for their own failings, but also for the whole people. But then even the experience of their own sinfulness led them ultimately to confess his holiness, as we could hear in the Responsorial psalm: The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion!!! But then, at the same time, as we would hear in the first reading, taken from the book of Sirach, walking on the path of holiness also means learning to forgive the sins that my neighbor would commit against me, just as the Lord himself had forgiven me my lack of justice.
In the New Testament, this experience of holiness becomes even more diaphanous, made more manifest, in the person of Jesus Christ, perfect image of the invisible God. From him, the Word of the Father made Flesh, we hear explicitly the command to forgive as well. “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? Seven times?” To this question of Peter the Lord answers with the parable of the evil servant who, after being forgiven of his a debt of incalculable value of which he was unable to pay by his powerful Master, showed himself incapable of offering the same pardon to a fellow who owed him for a lot less.
The parable shows us two things, which would be helpful to us as we live our life as Christians faithful to the Lord’s call. First, it shows us that we must have an experience of God’s holiness in our day to day life. The Christian life is none other than living this experience, in the heart of the Chruch. Ordinarily, to live this experience of God who is holy is to experience his mercy and his pardon, ALWAYS. This is heightened most especially when we go to Mass, which is the sacrifice which won forgiveness for us, since it is none other than the unrepeatable event of Calvary; this is experience whenever we ask for God’s pardon in the sacrament of confession. Unless we live this experience of the holiness of the Lord in our lives, wherever He has placed us, we can never be holy.
Secondly, we must share this experience with others, which is an experience of mercy. This means that as Christians we must be ready to forgive, ALWAYS, especially when it is hardest. Perhaps that which makes it hard to forgive is the fact that we haven’t really experience what it means to be loved and pardoned by the Lord. Only the Christian who has experience the ignominy of his sins, of how offensive they are to the love of God, but above all, the power of God’s forgiveness and love for the sinner, can he forgive, and thus fulfill the Lord’s command—and not just His desire for us—to pardon as we ourselves are pardoned. and it is then that we--like the character Jean Valjean--would be able to be transformed to be better, more holy, more into sons and daughters of God.
Today marks ten years since the ignominious event of the terrorist attacks against humanity, that 11th of September, 2001. Let us remember those who lost have lost their loved ones in this tragic event, for the nations and peoples, that never again would crimes be perpetrated against humanity in the name of God. Together let us pray for God’s forgiveness, deeply conscious of the fact that the healing that we deeply need and seek comes precisely from this experience of God, a God whose holiness is manifested in his mercy and love, both of which are made flesh in the embrace of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. Amen.