Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times” – Matthew 18:21 – 22.
I can still remember that fateful day: Waking up to go to school in the wee hours of the morning, everything seemed to be abuzz. Everyone seemed to be talking about one common thing and every television set seemed to be focused on one main image: the World Trade Centre Twin Towers in New York City. George Bush mentioned that it was “a day of infamy” and while I had little knowledge of what that meant or what was happening around me (cocooned in the comforts of childhood innocence, I was 11 years old), there seemed to be an undeniable atmosphere of immense sadness and ambivalence. Terrorism, hysteria and paranoia took centre stage. Yet at the same time, news of heroic emergency response teams and strangers supporting each other became evident as well. And all of these made me wonder: How can there ever be forgiveness and reconciliation in this scene of chaos and grief?
As fate would have it, this year, I spent September 11 in America and I caught a glimpse of the answer that I was searching for. While I was on my way to the Newman Catholic Centre for mass, I saw a very touching sight: hundreds of small American Flags was placed all around the school’s giant quadrangle. And as the little flags were gently waving in the wind, I found myself asking the same question about forgiveness again; how horrible it must have been to lose a loved one in this terrible ordeal. And so, I continued my walk to church filled with melancholy and a heavy heart.
The atmosphere at mass was exceptionally solemn. But amidst this state of somberness, I felt united in prayer with the American people around me even though I technically had no “connections” with the events that happened on September 11. I lost no loved ones, I am not a citizen of this country and when the attacks happened, I was hardly aware of the severity of it all and yet, I still felt this amazing sense of unity. I became overwhelmed with empathy – to just feel the sense of loss and grief that the people around me must have been feeling. Regardless of who we were and where we came from, prayer united all of us together.
Looking at the sanctuary, I found a rather interesting sight. I saw a pair of fireman boots (which was actually used for rescue on 9/11) placed neatly at the side of the altar. I saw men donning NYPD outfits placing numerous photo mosaics near the altar as well. This was truly a special mass. I have never seen such a close correlation between the events that happened around the world and together with the celebration of the Eucharist. This connection between reality and theology, this marriage between our lives and the living Bread, was going to mean so much more to me as I participated in this mass.
The atmosphere of the church remained steadily heavy throughout the liturgy of the Word. And when it was finally the moment for the Gospel reading, I was literally spellbound. It was an uncanny moment – the Gospel reading was the parable of the unmerciful servant! This has to be divine intervention at work; there could not have been a more apt reading for this day! And while I have heard this parable numerous times before, it always remained as a mere parable to me. I perceived it as a story, and a metaphor, something that stayed in the realms of the bible. Yet, as I sat at the congregation listening to the same parable over again, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder. God was really present amongst us and He was really speaking to the entire congregation, a congregation heavily burdened with sorrow and sadness.
Monsignor John Wall, the presider for the mass that day, delivered an amazing Homily that complemented and reiterated the power of the Gospel. He shared with us how he could still vividly recall the incidents that unfolded for him during September 11, 2001. He recollected numerous anecdotes of how people were rushing to him for prayer, guidance and support and how he instantaneously saw the need to conduct a prayer service during that day. He even made a trip down to the scene itself and found the scene of destruction, chaos and death too devastating; it was so hard to handle, so hard to comprehend.
Monsignor John Wall elaborated on how anger and hatred are just some of the many emotions that people felt that day. How was forgiveness even possible? How can people ever reconcile these events to the Gospel? It was and still is an incredible challenge to do so. Importantly though, Monsignor John Wall acknowledged that it was human nature to feel angry. It was an innate and intrinsic response to the horrific events that happened. But what became evident of these emotions was something unfavorable – the immense paranoia that has since descended upon America, the increased prejudice and marginalization against Muslims and the over-emphasis on terrorism rather than the many acts of heroism that happened during the attacks. Innocent Muslims became an outlet for the frustration of many. There were so many individuals, people like you and me, who risked and lost their lives for others. In a state of utter chaos, people were being magnanimous, heroic and selfless! But these incredible acts of the human will and these amazing feats of humanity have been rather overshadowed by the increased paranoia for terrorism. Why was this the case?
The subsequent prayer of the faithful was incredibly moving. Prayers for the deceased, the military, the emergency response services, the people of America and Muslims were all lifted to God. And it was at this precise moment that I truly understood the immense importance of inter-religious relationships in Singapore. The need to understand, appreciate and respect the many diverse religions at home is something that cannot be compromised. The prayer of the faithful also illustrated forgiveness and redemption at work. It has been a decade since the attacks happened and many people are still trying to move on with their lives. Many people are still very hurt. But here was a scene that was so important and so touching: people were praying for each other and for those whom they might have been angry and frustrated with.
I walked away from church that day feeling very nourished. It was as though God had brought me all the way to America to find the answer that I was looking for. This mass has taught me something important: that forgiveness and love transcends logic and rationality. It transcends human nature. It is difficult, challenging and might be considered nonsensical even. But it is the path to salvation and freedom. Truly then, there can be forgiveness and reconciliation in our world of chaos and grief only because forgiveness is not a one-off occasion, nor is it seven occasions. In the words of our Lord, forgiveness is immeasurable – seventy times seven times.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok