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Fr Dennis Smith, Wednesday in Holy Week, 2013

Of all the great services held in Westminster Abbey over the years, one of the most significant was the one held to welcome South Africa back into the Commonwealth, from which she had been forced to withdraw in 1961. The Abbey was packed to the doors. The 51 Commonwealth flags had been carried in procession up to the high altar by representatives each in their national dress and placed in grouped stands, leaving one empty space.

At a certain point a young South African naval cadet arrived at the west door with the new flag, which he carried up the nave, to be met at the quire entrance by Vice-President Mbeki, who took the flag to the altar steps where the Commonwealth Secretary General, Chief Anyouku, placed it in the empty stand. 

The entire congregation erupted into spontaneous and lengthy applause; a group from Soweto led the congregation in the new national anthem; Bishop Trevor Hudddleston led the prayers, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu began his sermon with what, to those present, seemed the only appropriate word: “WOW!” – and afterwards danced for joy on the steps of the Abbey. The Archbishop danced because what had been witnessed was a most striking example of what St Paul calls “the mystery of the gospel”. For that purpose is, in a word, “reconciliation”.

Our reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ; and in turn, our reconciliation with each other. Both stem from a readiness to forgive and to be forgiven: to forgive and be forgiven the wrongs of the past and the present.

And it is a “hidden” gospel because it’s in such stark contrast to our natural instinct, which is to retaliate when we are attacked or hurt or treated unjustly, to store up anger in our heart, to claim “an eye for an eye, a life for a life”. And it is “hidden”, “a mystery”, therefore, because without a change of heart, we are blind to it.

It wasn’t just Nelson Mandela who brought about a radical change in his nation by adopting the powerful way of forgiveness and reconciliation. It was Mr de Klerk who, a month after he had expressed deep apology in Cape Town for the evils of apartheid, gave the Nobel Laureate lecture in the royal Albert Hall. When he had finished, he was asked by a questioner whether apartheid had been brought to an end by international sanctions? “No”, de Klerk replied, “it was not the sanctions, it was deep self-analysis on our knees before God!”

For what such deep analysis on our knees can reveal, is a way of acting that is radically at odds with the way of the world. What’s been hidden to us is now revealed, for we begin to see with new eyes, and with a new awareness of what the gospel is actually about. For there’s a weak and impotent gospel, which sees Christianity in terms of a series of moral injunctions and Jesus as our example, but there’s a powerful gospel, which has its centre the Cross and Passion of Christ, and which speaks of forgiveness and dying, of resurrection and new life. It speaks of a God made known in human terms, who says: “Accept that you are loved. Accept that you are forgiven and reconciled, then live in the light of this knowledge, and treat others as I have treated your.”

We don’t have to be so naive as to think that such a liberating truth can be easily translated into the way nations behave to other nations; or indeed that justice can be achieved and conflicts resolved without great cost. For it’s justice that we’re talking about. That’s the ground-rule for all proper human relationships. Yet people’s conflicting interests and desires can rarely be reconciled with absolute justice for all. Almost always there has to be compromise, and that inevitably means some sacrifice. All parties have to relinquish something which strict justice might have awarded them; and that, however modest, is an act of generosity – if you like, a small act of love.

It’s also clear that past hurts and offences carry a powerful poisonous toxin that will frustrate every attempt to neutralise it unless and until there’s a deep desire to pursue the costly way of reconciliation. You only have to think of Northern Ireland or of a long-standing family row. There has to be a facing of painful and bitter memories, and an attempt to look back and understand what happened, for it’s only by understanding what’s led to such a state of bitter hurt and anger that there can be any hope of mutual penitence and mutual forgiveness. You cannot forget, but you can forgive. Only then can the healing of those memories take place. In the words of T. S. Elliot: “Only by accepting the past can we alter its meaning.” But that requires grace and courage of a high order.

I’ve spoken of large matters: of the prejudice, the past injustices, the conflicting desires, that divide nations and societies. But you’ll understand that I’ve therefore also been speaking of those destructive forces we all harbour within our own divided hearts. I began with South Africa and what two men achieved by following the alternative way of forgiveness and reconciliation. And I end with another man’s visit some years earlier to that same land, and his very personal attempt to apply the powerful, hidden gospel of Jesus.

Roger Schutz, then Prior of the ecumenical community of Taize in Burgundy, was in Cape Town during the years when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island. He visited a black neighbourhood and wrote that night in his diary: “I thought we should be meeting a few friends, but found a whole crowed gathered for prayer. African priests and pastors of all denominations welcomed me on a platform and handed me a microphone. I spoke some words to them … but I said to myself that my words were so inadequate so instead … I tried to express all that was in my heart with a gesture. I said: ‘I would like to ask you forgiveness, not in the name of the whites – I could not do that – but because you are suffering for the Gospel and you go before us into the Kingdom of God. I would like to pass from one to another of you so that each of you can make the sign of the cross on the palm of my hand – the sign of Christ’s forgiveness.’ This gesture was understood immediately. As I moved among them, each one made the sign of the cross on the palm of my hand. It seemed to take an eternity. And then, spontaneously, they burst into songs of resurrection.”

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