These are challenging times and today's Mass readings are challenging. It's the 10th anniversary of what has come to be known simply as "9-11" and the readings are all about forgiveness.
The First Reading (Sirach 27: 30 - 28: 7) begins: "Wrath and anger are hateful things." They may be "hateful" but they are common. In the reconciliation room or confessional I hear sins of anger confessed frequently. Yet, is anger really a sin? Jesus got angry. Jesus, the sinless one, the all-holy Son of God, became so angry that he made a whip to drive animals out of the temple and turned over the tables of money-changers, scattering their coins. Anger itself isn't a sin. What we do with it can be. In fact, anger, as we see with Jesus, is the appropriate response to something that is wrong, to an injustice, to evil. We ought to get angry at some of the situations in our world.
Anger becomes sinful when we nurse it into bitterness and resentment, when we allow it to make our hearts hard, cold, and unforgiving. The best definition of resentment that I've heard is this: "Resentment is like taking a bottle of poison, drinking it, and hoping that the other person dies." Resentment really doesn't hurt the person who hurts us. It hurts and poisons us. It leads to alienation from other people and from God.
This is why some other words from Sirach are very important to hear: "Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!" We don't have forever. Actually, we don't have forever in this world to let go of resentments, but we will have forever in the next life to be poisoned and forever alienated from God. Thus we must let go of resentments and forgive now.
In 1995 the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Today, in the plaza where the building stood, there are 168 concrete chairs representing the people whose lives were snuffed out that day. Timothy McVeigh was apprehended, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. In prison, awaiting his execution, he was visited by a Catholic priest, Fr. Charles Smith, who came to lead him to remorse and reconciliation. McVeigh was a baptized Catholic but had not been practicing the faith. The first visit did not go well. In a Catholic News Service story, Fr. Smith is quoted as saying: "I went to him and he threw his feces on me and called me all types of names and said, 'You can't be a priest because I've never seen a you-know-what as a priest.'" You see, Fr. Smith is African-American. McVeigh, poisoned by his racism and bitterness, rejected Fr. Smith. But Fr. Smith persisted and in time McVeigh sought God's mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. On June 11, 2001, Fr. Smith and Timothy McVeigh walked together down the corridor to the execution room where McVeigh was given a lethal injection.
It was reported that the reaction on the part of some people who had lost family members was: "That was too easy! He should have suffered more!" Having nursed their anger into a bitterness, McVeigh's death was not enough. They wanted his suffering.
Imagine for a moment those people passing from this life to the next and seeing Timothy McVeigh, who had sought mercy from God, forgiven and with the Lord in heaven. It's conceivable that having held on to their resentment for years they would say: "What's he doing here? How could you have forgiven him? You may have forgiven him but I will never forgive him for what he did to my family!" And conceivably they would choose to be separated from God rather than to forgive.
How do we forgive? It isn't easy and it's not once-and-for-all. We don't "forgive and forget" unless we have amnesia. Painful memories do not go away. They come back to haunt us and tempt us. Perhaps this is why in the Gospel (Matthew 18: 21-35) Jesus tells Peter he must forgive 77 times. On any given day the painful memory may return and the temptation to allow it to become a resentment might come back innumerable times. Each time we are challenged to forgive. Forgiveness, like love, is not a feeling but a decision, an act of the will. When the painful memory of how we've been hurt returns, we must forgive and pray for the ones who hurt us. We pray for their conversion and for their ultimate good. We don't want an ongoing resentment to keep us from the Communion of Saints in heaven.
Where do we get the power to forgive? From Jesus. From the Eucharist where Jesus speaks to us and gives his Heart to us so that we might be transformed and empowered to do what he did. At every Mass we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus in a miraculous way that actually makes these saving events present to us right now. The past event--Calvary--is made present and we hear Jesus once again pray: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
Nine years ago I was working at the Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. I had just finished talking about the events of September 11, 2001, and a man followed me into a tiny individual conference room. He introduced himself as Vince Fahnlander and said that he was Tom Burnett's college roommate. I couldn't quite remember who Tom Burnett was but I surmised he had some connection with 9-11. Vince explained that Tom was on the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania. After graduation Tom moved to California and got a job with a medical technology firm and Vince stayed in Minnesota. They lost contact with each other.
When Vince heard that there was going to be a memorial service for Tom at his home parish in Bloomington, Minnesota, he went. He almost thought that he was at the wrong place because the man whom the priest described didn't sound like the Tom Burnett he knew. Tom had quit practicing the faith in college and the priest described a man who went to Mass every day.
After the service Vince went up to Deena, Tom's widow, introduced himself and asked about what had happened in the intervening years. Deena explained that Tom had always been a hard worker and when he stopped coming home for lunch in 1997, she figured he was putting in extra hours at work. Six months before his death he revealed to her that he had been going to a 12:10 PM Mass every day instead of driving the short distance home for lunch.
In an article that Vince sent me, Deena explained: "He told me that he felt God was telling him he was going to do something. Something big. But he didn't understand what it was." Feeling God calling him to something, Tom thought that if he prayed more he would find the answer. Deena continued: "He knew that what he was going to do would impact a lot of people. And he knew one other thing: It had something to do with the White House."
Just imagine this average guy, much like you or I, having an intuition that God had a plan for him. That God was calling him to something else. He senses, as he prays, that this call has something to do with the White House and he thinks: "What does my life have to do with the White House?! I have any plans or desires to go into politics!"
On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House. He knew where the plane that had been hijacked was heading and he and others on that plane decided that at all costs they had to prevent a greater tragedy from happening. They acted and the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
Where did Tom get the insight and courage to do what he did? I believe it was the Eucharist where every day he experienced a sacrifice that saved the world. There he found the strength that would one day help him to sacrifice himself.
Tom Burnett and the others are called heroes. We may feel that we are not heroes, but each of us is called to love heroically. We do that when we sacrifice ourselves for others--for spouse and for family, for our city and for our country, for our Church. The power to love in a sacrificial way comes from the Eucharist. The power to sacrifice our hurts and resentments, forgiving and praying for our enemies, comes from the Eucharist. In Holy Communion Jesus gives us himself, his Body and Blood, his Pierced Heart. In the Eucharist our hearts become more and more like the Heart of Jesus who did not pray for vengeance on his enemies but for their forgiveness.