“Father, Forgive Them, for They Know Not What They Do!”

It seems to be a fact of human psychology that when death approaches, the human heart speaks its words of love to those whom it holds closest and dearest. There is no reason to suspect that it is otherwise in the case of the Heart of hearts. If He spoke in a graduated order to those whom He loved most, then we may expect to find in His first three words the order of His love and affection. His first words went out to enemies: “Father, forgive them”; His second to sinners: “This day you will be with me in paradise”; and His third to saints: “Woman, behold your son.” Enemies, sinners, and saints—such is the order of divine love and thoughtfulness.

The congregation anxiously awaited His first word. The executioners expected Him to cry, for everyone pinned on the gibbet of the Cross had done it before Him. Seneca tells us that those who were crucified cursed the day of their birth, the executioners, their mothers, and even spat on those who looked upon them. Cicero tells us that at times it was necessary to cut out the tongues of those who were crucified, to stop their terrible blasphemies. Hence the executioners expected a cry but not the kind of cry that they heard.

The scribes and Pharisees expected a cry, too, and they were quite sure that He who had preached “Love your enemies,” and “Do good to them that hate you,” would now forget that gospel with the piercing of feet and hands. They felt that the excruciating and agonizing pains would scatter to the winds any resolution He might have taken to keep up appearances.

This article is from a the book The Cries of Jesus From the Cross: A Fulton Sheen Anthology. Click image to learn more.

Everyone expected a cry, but no one with the exception of the three at the foot of the Cross expected the cry they did hear. Like some fragrant trees that bathe in perfume the very axe that gnashes them, the great Heart on the Tree of Love poured out from its depths something less a cry than a prayer, the soft, sweet, low prayer of pardon and forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Forgive whom? Forgive enemies? The soldier in the courtroom of Caiaphas who struck Him with a mailed fist; Pilate, the politician, who condemned a God to retain the friendship of Caesar; Herod, who robed Wisdom in the garment of a fool; the soldiers who swung the King of Kings on a tree between heaven and earth—forgive them? Forgive them, why? Because they know what they do? No, because they know not what they do. If they knew what they were doing and still went on doing it; if they knew what a terrible crime they were committing by sentencing Life to death; if they knew what a perversion of justice it was to choose Barabbas to Christ; if they knew what cruelty it was to take the feet that trod everlasting hills and pinion them to the limb of a tree; if they knew what they were doing and still went on doing it, unmindful of the fact that the very blood that they shed was capable of redeeming them, they would never be saved! Why, they would be damned if it were not for the fact that they were ignorant of the terrible thing they did when they crucified Christ! It was only the ignorance of their great sin that brought them within the pale of the hearing of that cry from the Cross. It is not wisdom that saves; it is ignorance!

There is no redemption for the fallen angels. Those great spirits headed by the Bearer of Light, Lucifer, endowed with an intelligence compared with which ours is but that of a child, saw the consequences of each of their decisions just as clearly as we see that two and two make four. Having made a decision, they made it irrevocably; there was no taking it back, and hence there was no future redemption. It is because they knew what they were doing that they were excluded from the hearing of that cry that went forth from the Cross. It is not wisdom that saves; it is ignorance!

In like manner, if we knew what a terrible thing sin was and went on sinning; if we knew how much love there was in the Incarnation and still refused to nourish ourselves with the Bread of Life; if we knew how much sacrificial love there was in the Sacrifice of the Cross and still refused to fill the chalice of our heart with that love; if we knew how much mercy there was in the sacrament of Penance, and still refused to bend a humble knee to a hand that had the power to loose both in heaven and on earth; if we knew how much life there was in the Eucharist and still refused to take of the Bread that makes life everlasting and still refused to drink of that Wine that produces and enriches virgins; if we knew all the truth there is in the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and still turned our backs to it like other Pilates; if we knew all these things and still stayed away from Christ and His Church, we should be lost!

It is not wisdom that saves; it is ignorance! It is only our ignorance of how good God is that excuses us for not being saints!

Dear Jesus! I do not want to know the wisdom of the world; I do not want to know on whose anvil snowflakes are hammered or the hiding place of darkness or from whose womb came the ice, or why the gold falls to the earth earthly, and fire climbs to the heavens heavenly; I do not want to know literature and science, or the four-dimensional universe in which we live; I do not want to know the length of the universe in terms of light-years; I do not want to know the breadth of the earth as it dances about the chariot of the sun; I do not want to know the heights of the stars, chaste candles of the night; I do not want to know the depths of the sea or the secrets of its watery palace. I want to be ignorant of all these things. I want only to know the length, the breadth, the height, and the depth of Thy redeeming love on the Cross, sweet Savior of men. I want to be ignorant of everything in the world—everything but You, dear Jesus. And then, by the strangest of strange paradoxes, I shall be wise!

This article is from a chapter in Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s book, The Cries of Jesus From the Cross: A Fulton Sheen Anthology. It is available as a paperback or ebook from your favorite bookseller or online through Sophia Institute Press.

We also recommend the articles, “Fulton J. Sheen: My Guide As I Learn to Pray,” and “How Bishop Sheen Helped Me to Reconcile With the Blessed Mother” by editor Al Smith.

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

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Venerable Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) was one of the best-loved prelates of twentieth century Catholicism. A prolific writer and orator, a distinguished scholar and teacher, an influential master of the media, Ven. Sheen was one of the most effective communicators of our time. His scores of books have offered inspiration, profound thought, and penetrating analysis of Christian faith and life.

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