There is a museum in Jerusalem called Yad Vashem and it was established to commemorate the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust during World War II. The name of that museum, Yad Vashem, comes from the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) and is found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In Chapter 56 of Isaiah, the Lord is comforting and consoling the people of Israel who have seen such devastation and loss after years of exile in the land of Babylon. As they return to their native land, God makes this promise to His chosen people, that for those who now keep His covenant and law, “I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).
A monument and a name. In Hebrew, a Yad vashem.
In naming the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, the message is clear that for those innocent men and women whose lives were tragically taken away, there will always be a remembrance. In fact, God Himself will remember them always for He knows them each by name.
Today we commemorate the thousands of men and women in our own nation whose lives were tragically cut short ten years ago in the terrorist attacks of September 11. It is not the same experience as the Holocaust; we know that. But for those who have lost family members and loved ones; for those who were personally harmed by the events of that fateful day; even for us as a nation, the sense of injustice, pain and sorrow is the same. The words of the Prophet Isaiah call to mind for us today the reality that these lives too will be given a place of remembrance, a yad vashem. The Lord remembers each of these men and women, created in His image and likeness; He knows them each by name.
The sense of memory and remembrance are central themes for us as Catholics. We celebrate Masses of Remembrance for our beloved deceased; we call to mind our identity as people of faith by remembering the history of salvation whenever the Eucharistic Prayer is offered; we recall Christ’s passion, death and resurrection and unite ourselves to Him in the hope of our own resurrection from the dead. We are people of remembrance.
In our Gospel this weekend St. Matthew reminds us of the importance of the memory when it comes to the commandment to forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven. Christ tells the parable of the king whose servant owed him “a huge amount” (Matthew 18:24). In fact, the debt was so great that in order to settle accounts with the king, the servant and his family would have to be sold off, along with all his property and possessions. He was personally and financially ruined, and he knew it. Falling to his knees before the king he pleaded for patience and the chance to pay it all back.
Suddenly the king, in a moment of extreme compassion and mercy, decides to forgive him the entire debt! It was a remarkable and seemingly unforgettable event. Yet immediately after leaving the presence of the king that servant forgets all about it—or choses to forget. He encounters a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller amount and seizes him, demanding that he pay it back immediately.
The point that Christ is making is that our memories and our hearts should be able to retain the great compassion and mercy of God so abundantly and even extravagantly poured out upon us. From that great resource of Divine Mercy, then, we should be able to act in kind to those who owe us so much less. Christ plays the numbers game with St. Peter in the Gospel: not seven times should we fogive, but seventy-seven times (other translations read seventy times seven, i.e., four-hundred and ninety). Whatever translation we are reading or however we calculate forgiveness, few if any of us can think of one person who has injured us four-hundred and ninety times, or even seventy-seven times. But we have all offended God at least seventy-seven times, perhaps even this week. Remember that! Remember what it is like to be loved that much and to be given so great a gift as God’s unconditional mercy and love.
There is a story about a Christian woman named Corrie Ten Boom who, along with her father and sister, helped to shelter Jews in the Netherlands during the Second World War. She would later write a book about her experience called, The Hiding Place. At one point their activity was discovered and they were taken into custody by the Nazis. Corrie’s father died soon thereafter but Corrie and her sister were moved to several places, eventually finding themselves in the concentration camp named Ravensbruk. It was there that Corrie’s sister died shortly before Corrie herself was freed.
Remarkably, Corrie began traveling around the world after the war in order to share the message of God’s merciful love. Her message was that God forgives—even the horrors of the Holocaust—God forgives. As you might imagine, it was a compelling and powerful witness.
She had just finished that talk in a small Church outside of Munich when she saw a man approaching from the back of the room. Her blood ran cold as she recognized him. He had been one of the SS guards at Ravensbruck, and one of the cruelest. He had no idea who she was.
“A fine message,” he said. “How good it is to know that, as you say, our sins are forgiven by God. You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from you, as well.”
He held out his hand to her, and at that very moment she thought of her sister, who had died in that place. She later recalled, “I stood there—I whose sins had again and again needed to be forgiven—and could not forgive.”
But she knew the power of forgiveness; she had spoken of it so many times. She knew that forgiveness was above all an act of the will, and that she did not need to feel like forgiving someone in order to actually do so. Suddenly she began to pray: Jesus, help me. I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You do the rest.
And as she shook the hand of that former SS guard, she began to feel a love for him that could only come from God. She said later that she had never known God’s love as intensely as she did that day.
We are called to be people of forgiveness in imitation of Christ who forgives each of us for so very much. Often times that is not an easy thing to do. Perhaps sometimes all we can do is struggle lift up our hands to God, to raise our hearts to Him, asking for the grace to forgive. When we do so, whether it be something small or maybe even as overwhelming as the terrorist attacks on our nation ten years ago, we trust that God is with us, helping us and allowing us to participate in His merciful love. May we have the grace necessary to remember all that He has done for us, all that He has forgiven us, so that the mercy flowing from the cross can continue to work in and through us in our daily lives.