From Fr Robert Hugh Benson’s reflections on the Seven Last Words:
Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
In previous considerations we have studied the Life of Christ in His Mystical Body from an angle at which the strange and innumerable paradoxes which abound in all forms of life at a certain depth become visible. And we have seen how these paradoxes lie in those strata, so to say, where the Divinity and the Humanity meet. Christ is God and God cannot die; therefore Christ became man in order to be able to do so. The Church is Divine and therefore all-holy, but she dwells in a Body of sinful Humanity and reckons her sinners to be her children and members no less than her saints.
We will continue to regard the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the Words which He spoke from the Cross from the same angle, and to find, therefore, the same characteristic paradoxes and mysteries in all that we see. In the First Word we meet the Paradox of Divine Forgiveness.
I. Ordinary human forgiveness is no more than a natural virtue, resulting from a natural sense of justice, and if a man is normal, his forgiveness will be a natural and inevitable part of the process of reconciliation so soon as a certain kind of restitution has been made. For example, a friend of mine sins against me—he injures, perhaps, my good name; and my natural answer is the emotion of resentment towards him and, perhaps, of actual revenge. But what I chiefly resent is my friend’s stupidity and his ignorance of my real character. “I am angry,” I say, with perfect sincerity, “not so much at the thing he has said of me, as at this proof of his incapacity to understand me. I thought he was my friend, that he was in sympathy with my character or, at least, that he understood it sufficiently to do me justice. But now, from what he has just said of me, I see that he does not. If the thing he said were true of me, the most of my anger would be gone. But I see that he does not know me, after all.”
And then, presently, my friend does understand that he has wronged me; that the gossip he repeated or the construction he put upon my actions was not fair or true. And immediately that I become aware of this, from him or from another, my resentment goes, if I have any natural virtue at all; it goes because my wounded pride is healed. I forgive him easily and naturally because he knows now what he has done.
II. How entirely different from this easy, self-loving, human forgiveness is the Divine Forgiveness of Christ! Now it is true that in the conscience of Pilate, the unjust representative of justice, and in that thing that called itself conscience in Herod, and in the hearts of the priests who denounced their God, and of the soldiers who executed their overlord, and of Judas who betrayed his friend, in all these there was surely a certain uneasiness—such an uneasiness is actually recorded of the first and the last of the list—a certain faint shadow of perception and knowledge of what it was that they had done and were doing. And, for the natural man, it would have been comparatively easy to forgive such injuries on that account. “I forgive them,” such a man might have said from his cross, “because there is just a glimmer of knowledge left; there is just one spark in their hearts that still does me justice, and for the sake of that I can try, at least, to put away my resentment and ask God to forgive them.”
But Jesus Christ cries, “Forgive them because they do not know what they do! Forgive them because they need it so terribly, since they do not even know that they need it! Forgive in them that which is unforgivable!”
III. Two obvious points present themselves in conclusion.
(1) First, it is Divine Forgiveness that we need, since no sinner of us all knows the full malice of sin. One man is a slave, let us say, to a sin of the flesh, and seeks to reassure himself by the reflection that he injures no one but himself; ignorant as he is of the outrage to God the Holy Ghost Whose temple he is ruining. Or a woman repeats again every piece of slanderous gossip that comes her way and comforts herself in moments of compunction by reflecting that she “means no harm”; ignorant as she is of the discouragement of souls of which she is the cause and of the seeds of distrust and enmity sown among friends. In fact it is incredible that any sinner ever knows what it is that he does by sin. We need, therefore, the Divine Forgiveness and not the human, the pardon that descends when we are unaware that we must have it or die; the love of the Father Who, while we are yet a great way off, runs to meet us, and Who teaches us for the first time, by the warmth of His welcome, the icy distances to which we had wandered. If we knew, anyone could forgive us. It is because we do not that only God, Who knows all things, can forgive us effectively.
(2) And it is this Divine Forgiveness that we ourselves have to extend to those that sin against us, since only those who so forgive can be forgiven. We must not wait until wounded pride is made whole by the conscious shame of our enemy; until the debt is paid by acknowledgment and we are complacent once more in the knowledge that justice has been done to us at last. On the contrary, the only forgiveness that is supernatural, and which, therefore, alone is meritorious, is that which reach out to men’s ignorance and not their knowledge of their need