My kids learn first that Jesus died for our sins. Then, when they’re old enough, we discuss exactly how He died. Finally, for a question I hope they’ll be pondering for the rest of their lives, I ask them why He suffered and died. Why did He do it this way, when He could have chosen any number of other methods to save our souls?
My son, who is seven, ventured a guess: “Was it just easier that way?” Nope. Harder. Much, much harder.
First, we discuss how sacrifice makes a gift more precious. The kids could understand that something won through sacrifice is more meaningful than a gift given easily: if someone has 100 pieces of candy and gives you one, you might enjoy the candy, but it’s just candy. But if someone has been waiting all his life to taste candy, and finally gets a piece, and then decides to give it to you instead—well, that’s no longer just a piece of candy. So they could see that God could have saved us with a casual, cosmic nod from the bounty of His love; but instead, He gave up Heaven, changed the order of things forever, and went to more trouble than we can even begin to comprehend. From this, we know for sure that He loves us.
We also talked about how Jesus was willing to suffer so that our own suffering would be worthwhile, not wasted. I told them how I was once too broke to bring a gift to a wedding. A friend of mine had brought an expensive and thoughtful present, beautifully wrapped, and she let me add my name to the card. We discussed how Jesus allows us to “add our name” to the gift of his sacrifice to the Father—that we can do this every time we suffer, and also any time we attend Mass.
Finally, we discussed how Jesus died this way as an example of how we were supposed to treat each other: even as He was being tortured, Jesus begged His Father for forgiveness for his torturers. Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus links our own forgiveness to our willingness to forgive other people. “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” I had no handy, homely analogy to illustrate this point—probably because I’m one of those living sacrifices that keeps trying to crawl off the altar.
I have noticed that it’s actually fairly easy to be noble and courageous in moments of high moral drama, as long as they don’t last too long: I may skip my morning prayers on some random Tuesday in March, but I’m darn well not going to be lazy about prayer on my death bed. I might be casual about using God’s name in vain if I stub my toe, but if someone tried to coerce me to stomp on a crucifix, I’m fairly sure I’d do the right thing and refuse. We feel strong and determined to fight the devil when he looks like a fiery dragon, but no one puts on a suit of armor to do battle against bacteria—and yet the battle for our souls is, most often, fought on the microscopic level. We survive the wound itself; it’s the infection that gets us.
If we’re having a hard time forgiving someone who hurt us, it may be because we’re expecting forgiveness to be one of these moments of glorious crisis: exquisite pain or excruciating joy, to be followed by a the lovely dawn of an Easter morning, with all peace and joyance henceforward.
Except that not even Easter happened that way. After the initial blaze of glory of the Resurrection itself, Jesus hung around, working. This is a essential part of the example He set: the follow-through. When Christ told his disciples earlier to forgive your brother “not seven times, but seventy times seven times,” I think he may very well have meant for a single offense—because that’s how forgiveness works.
First we do the showy, dramatic, literally crucial part of it: the moment of crisis when the words “I forgive you” make it to our lips. But once we’ve made the decision to forgive, once we’ve given ourselves over to be crucified, there’s still those three hours—and there’s still those forty days. That was Jesus’ example from the cross: not just the necessary grand gesture, but the follow-through. When we forgive someone, we don’t just decide that it’s over, and enjoy tranquility and brotherly love from that moment forward. We forgive; and then, when we realize the wound has not instantly healed, we forgive and forgive and forgive again.
The decision to forgive is a bandage that covers up the wound. The actual process of forgiveness, though, is the same as physical healing: it is a mundane and hidden battle that happens on a microscopic level, restoring us cell by cell by cell.