Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

God's Forgiveness as a Hand on the Shoulder

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

God's Forgiveness as a Hand on the Shoulder

Article excerpt

It was a dilemma for my grandfather. The pastor had ordered his son, my father, to do public penance, to kneel at the altar rail throughout a Sunday Mass. Why? To repent for failing to show for an altar boy assignment. But the absence was not my father's fault. It was Grampa's. He'd kept his son home to help with essential family chores. Back then, people had such reverence for priests, even when they weren't being very priestly, that my grandfather simply told my father. Do as the pastor said.

Imagine the shame my father must have felt as he went up the aisle to be humiliated in front of the whole parish at the sacrifice of the Mass. His legs trembled as he knelt. He wished he were dead. Suddenly, his humiliation was transformed, He felt a h and on his shoulder, looked up and saw his father , kneeling by his side.

That's story, to my family a very sacred story, helps make some sense of the odd behavior of Jesus, who came among us sinless but insisted on being baptized. Not only that, he demanded John's baptism of repentance, and everyone knew John's was a very stern message. John minced now words about the need for folks to publicly acknowledge their own sins and pledge to turn from their evil ways. (Even John thought it inappropriate for Jesus to have any part in such a ritual. He pleaded with Jesus to reverse roles with him.) Of course it was the dramatic ritual that troubled John; it was the total innocence of Jesus. As a matter of fact, John might very well have agreed with those rabbis and priests who find virtue in shame and view humiliation as fair payment for our sins. If so, John would learn that Jesus had a very different message.

Jesus wants to erase our shame. He wants to take it upon himself and share our sense of helplessness. He knows we can face even the impossible if we don't have to face it alone. Jesus tells us shame is not a value in itself; there is no such thing as repentance for its own sake. …

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