1st Word From the Cross: ‘Father, Forgive Them…’

We Sin and Know Not the Consequences

Fray Juan del Santísimo Sacramento (1611–1680), “Calvario con Carmelita”
Fray Juan del Santísimo Sacramento (1611–1680), “Calvario con Carmelita” (photo: Public Domain)

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:32-34)


Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.

The first word from the Cross is puzzling. Forgiveness is not puzzling, because we know that Jesus has come for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus speaks about that at the Last Supper. The Precious Blood is “poured out” for “the forgiveness of sins” (cf. Matthew 26:28).

But why does he say, “for they know not what they do?” (Luke 23:34) The surrounding verses indicate that the people and their leaders are not ignorant of what is being done. They are enthusiastic, adding their own cruelty and mockery to the death sentence asked for by the Sanhedrin and delivered by Pontius Pilate.

Certainly Jesus was not crucified by accident. The plot against him was well planned and executed. The Sanhedrin knowingly convicted him of making himself equal to God, the sin of blasphemy. Caiaphas had declared that it was “better for one man to die for the people” (cf. John 18:14). Certainly Pontius Pilate knew that he was innocent; the Roman governor even went so far as to ostentatiously wash his hands of responsibility (cf. Matthew 27:24).

So what did they not know?

Perhaps they did not know the extent of what they were doing, what the meaning of this particular execution was, what really what was at stake. What the Sanhedrin did not know — what Pilate did not know — was that to solve a relatively lesser problem, they were doing something much worse.

It’s often that way with sin, is it not? We may know that this or that action is sinful, but we do not know the full consequences. It was that way at the beginning, wasn’t it? Adam and Eve knew that they were sinning, acting contrary to God’s will. But did they know the full consequence? Did they know that their sin would condemn, to the thousandth generation, all the children of men? That original sin would become the least original thing in the world? Everyone has it.

In the global pandemic there has been a lot of talk about what we know and what we don’t know, about the nature of the coronavirus and how it will spread. We know that it is evil according to the classical definition, because it effects a deprivation of the good of health, even life. And while we can recognize evil, perhaps there is more that we don’t know about its power to corrupt and to spread.

Is this coronavirus the consequence of sin? Yes. In general, all sickness and death is the consequence of original sin. But the new covenant in Jesus Christ makes it clear that there is not a direct link between physical illness or disability and personal sin. Recall the Gospel of the man born blind which was proclaimed recently on Laetare Sunday. The disciples come to Jesus and ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” (John 9:2-3)

God can bring good out of evil, just as on Good Friday the redemption of the world is accomplished through the wicked plotting of corrupt and weak men.

And it is true that the spread of the coronavirus too is, in part, the work of corrupt and weak and incompetent men. When the pandemic passes, there will be much blame to go around, and much of it will be deserved.

The principal blame will belong to the communist regime of China. We already know that had the Chinese authorities acted more quickly — instead of denying and lying and punishing the doctors who sounded the alarm — some 95% of the cases around the world could have been avoided.

That is not to blame the Chinese people as a whole, any more than we blame the entire Jewish people for the sins of the Sanhedrin and the Roman imperial authorities on Good Friday.

Communist authoritarians lie and deceive and manipulate. It’s what they always do unless somehow they think, on a particular occasion, it favors their power to tell the truth. And so the communists in China did what they always do.

These are the same communists who forbid children from going to Mass and imprison bishops, who strip holy images from some churches and destroy outright others, who trample upon the fundamental human right to religious liberty and do not honor their agreements with the Holy See. These are the same communists who, in 2019 and 2020, still run concentration camps, in which more than 1 million Muslims are persecuted — and may have been used as slave labor during this pandemic.

These communists, when learning that a deadly virus — and not for the first time — was incubating in their people, did not rush to save them, but moved quickly to cover it up. Consequently, many thousands — likely tens of thousands, because the Chinese regime lies about that too — of their own people died and now the whole world is seized by a terrifying pandemic.

Did they know the enormity of what they were doing? Likely not. They were just going about their routine wickedness in a routine way, lying and defrauding and persecuting. They did not know that they were about to stop the world.

Sin is like that. Perhaps it is better that we don’t know it fully, lest we be overwhelmed by it all, devastated by our capacity for evil, immobilized by our inability to remedy what we have wrought.

There is now an immobilized Man who has the remedy, the Divine Physician who is nailed to his deathbed. The good news from the Cross is that forgiveness is available, even for those who commit enormities of which they do not know. Yes, mercy is available on the Cross even for those communists who strip the crucifixes out of Catholic Churches in China.

We too ask for this forgiveness, for our sins, and for the evil that we know they bring, and for the evil they bring that we do not know.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

In your house I shall celebrate the Passover

We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee, because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.