One of the small luxuries afforded by cable television is Turner Classic Movies. Who would have guessed that we might one day watch old movies from the comfort of our own living rooms? This past Tuesday, I wandered into the middle of Waterloo Bridge, a 1940 remake of a 1931 film about World War I, starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. As a lover of all things historical and British, I was immediately captivated by the wartime London setting, as well as the black and white cinematography and the powerful acting.
I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so I won’t tell you the story. I will tell you about its impact—and then you can judge whether you want to see it for yourself. I have not been able to get the movie out of my head. Part of me wanted the movie to end differently, but I am not sure it could have and still maintained its artistic integrity and impact. It could have worked out the way I wanted it to and still have been a good movie only if it had been able to portray forgiveness in a truly powerful way.
Judging as a reader and movie-watcher, it must be much easier to portray evil and tragedy in a powerful and convincing way than it is to capture goodness. Goodness in general, and forgiveness in particular, seem almost impossible to capture. For some, Victor Hugo succeeds in this endeavor in Les Miserables. There are others, but far too few books and movies achieve the artistic power of the Biblical narrative of the prodigal son. The forgiveness in the narrative is powerful, not because the sin is minimized or relativized, but precisely because it too is portrayed truthfully in all its ugliness in the full light of day.
Thanks to Waterloo Bridge, I am thinking even more than usual about forgiveness in this week leading up to Holy Week. Last night I went back and re-read C. S. Lewis’ short essay “On Forgiveness” in the Weight of Glory collection. Once again I was reminded how little we understand this reality that is at the heart of the Gospel message. In the words of the essay,
“Now it seems to me that we often make a mistake both about God’s forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people’s sins. Take it first about God’s forgiveness. I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality. . .asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive.” (C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory, Harper Collins 2001 edition, page 179.)
Forgiveness is hard to ask for and it is hard to offer. I suspect as I read Lewis that much of my own asking for forgiveness and much of my effort at forgiving is really asking to be excused or trying to see my way to excusing another’s behavior.
The message that we celebrate this Easter is not that we have been excused, but that we have been forgiven. It is not that circumstances have prevented us from being our best selves and that if the world and God really understood, they would know that we are okay. It is that the very small, inadequate and self-centered people we are at our very worst have been seen in the full light of day and been forgiven by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If we can catch even a glimpse of this in our deepest selves, we will be changed and we can celebrate with renewed joy this Easter.
Grace and Peace to you today,
President Mullen, Class of 1976