The story is told of two tribes in medieval Scotland who were always feuding, the Kildares and the MacDuffs. One day, a gang of the Kildare tribe came across a smaller group of MacDuffs, and chased after them, intending to set about them and kill them. The MacDuffs managed to reach the sanctuary of a local church and ran inside, slamming and locking the door behind them. The Kildares surrounded the church, intent on waiting it out until the MacDuffs would be forced by starvation to come out. A couple of hours later, a chieftain of the Kildare tribe came upon the scene and took it in. He, being a religious man, thought it a terrible thing to be fighting on holy ground. So he called into the MacDuffs, telling them to come out and promising not to harm them. Of course, they stayed inside the church, not believing for a moment the chieftain’s promises. Finally, he ordered his men to make a small hole in the wall of the church and he stuck his arm in through the wall in an offer of friendship and trust. After what seemed an eternity, one of the MacDuffs took hold of the proffered arm and shook it. Then they opened the door and came out and the two tribes reconciled.
You can imagine the scene, I’m sure. The risk that the Kildare chief took in putting his arm through the hole, when it could have been chopped off by a MacDuff sword. And the risk that the MacDuff took in shaking the hand of his enemy and the risk taken by all the MacDuffs in coming out of the church. This story, whether true or not, is the basis for the old saying “to chance your arm”, meaning to take a risk.When we begin a new job, or start up a new venture, or invest our savings, or ask someone to marry us, or agree to surgery , we are “chancing our arm”, for there is an element of risk in all these situations: things may or may not go well for us. I am sure, during the recent coronavirus scare, we have had to “chance our arm” to a certain extent. Even coming here to Mass has involved us in a certain risk, despite all the precautions we and you have taken to minimize the risk. Nothing is certain, of course , but we have decided to take the risk out of love for God and the Mass, trusting in God that He will honour our “chancing of the arm” and protect us from infection. But in all situations where we are required to take a risk, if someone does not step up and chance their arm, we are left stuck, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, there is no movement forward , no opportunity for a growth in character, no new discovery to be made. We took a risk in opening up the church again for Mass; you took a risk in coming out from the safety of your own home to come to Mass. We are recovering our sense of community, of normality, of hope.
Nowhere is the need to “chance our arm” more evident than when it comes to reconciliation between two people where hurt has been caused and offence taken. Indeed, there is risk that needs to be taken on both sides. The one who caused the hurt or offence has to go to the other and ask forgiveness. This can be a significant blow to one’s pride, a humbling and sense of shame. The one who was hurt has to take the risk of forgiving, and abandoning their right to hold onto their anger and sense of betrayal. Sometimes the matter is not so clear cut. It may be that both parties feel they are the ones offended against- there may be wrong on both sides. But unless one or the other decides to “chance their arm”, and stretch out their arm in an offer of reconciliation, both sides are stuck in their anger and unforgiveness and both are the poorer for it , in terms of moral character and courage. And their families and communities are the poorer for it, because of the unhealed crack in relationships that continues .
I remember years ago telling a lie to a friend of mine, and he believed me. Even though years had passed and we had drifted apart, with me being here in Canada, and he remaining in England, I was often troubled by the shadow on our relationship caused by my betrayal of him. I tried to pretend it was no big thing, that it should be left in the past, but the trouble was that God would not leave it there, knowing it was a poison to my heart, and he nagged away at me through my conscience to own up to my sin and confess to my friend. For a long while, my pride and my shame got the better of me, then at last I could not bear it anymore and I decided I had to do something about it. My soul shrank from speaking to him by phone, or in person on one of my trips back to England. Then I remembered the blessed invention of the internet, and wrote an email to him, confessing my fault and asking for his forgiveness. I went to bed that night, somewhat relieved. But of course, the next day I had to face up to going to my computer and wondering if my friend hadreceived the email and how he would respond. Finally, after a few days , he did respond with great graciousness, saying he was disappointed that I had lied to him, but he did forgive me and was willing to leave the whole incident in the past . Wow what a relief, I had regained my friend, but also I had humbled my pride, and removed the shadow between us, and between me and God. I had stepped up to the plate and chanced my arm, and been rewarded. I could have stayed safe and alone with my sin, but I would not have known a moment’s peace, I am sure, So long as I wanted to stay in relationship with God, he would continue to search my heart and plague my conscience, not out of any sort of malice or revenge, but because he knew that secrets are the devil’s playground, and Satan would continue to mock me and my desire for holiness by reminding me of my failure from the past over and over again. Now that my sin was confessed and guilt owned up to, and forgiveness received and reconciliation made, the devil had no more power over me in that area, and any distance between me and my friend, and between me and my God, caused by my sin had been erased.
You remember the story, told in Luke’s gospel, of the two criminals crucified right and left of Jesus , and how one of them cursed Jesus, but the other rebuked him, reminding him that, while Jesus was innocent, the two of them were criminals, being justly executed for their crimes. Then, he turned to Jesus and asked him to remember him when he came into his kingdom. At that moment, he was “chancing his arm”, stretching out his hand, as it were, towards Jesus and asking for forgiveness for his sins. And Jesus, you remember, said to him “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. Jesus, in turn was stretching out his arm ,as it were, to that criminal, and taking hold of his hand and saying “I forgive you.”
Today, brothers and sisters, let us consider if there is someone in our lives that we need to forgive and make that decision to chance our arm and take the risk of forgiving, first in our hearts, then, if necessary, by approaching the one who has hurt us to seek reconciliation. But for now, let us look to the cross and see Jesus stretching out his hand to us, offering us the strength to take the step of forgiving the one who has hurt us, as Jesus has so often taken the step of forgiving us for our many sins against him. Will we take his hand and ask for the grace to reach out in forgiveness to the one who has hurt us?
Or perhaps we are the one who has caused hurt or offence to another, and , as we face the cross today, let us make the decision to seek out that other and, whether in person, or by phone, or even by email, ask forgiveness from them. Let us also stretch out our hand to Jesus, seeking his strength to chance our arm and take the courageous, humbling step of admitting to another that we are guilty and ask for their forgiveness.
Let us not forget, either, that the whole drama of “chancing our arm”, of confession and forgiveness, is re-enacted for us each time we come to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. Over the last few weeks, I have been moved by the many who have come to me to celebrate this sacrament, and I know that God has indeed been busy in your hearts through this whole coronavirus pandemic and he has used this time of slowing down and restriction on our movements to lead us to a deeper searching of our hearts and desire for a closer, deeper relationship with Him, untroubled by the shadow of past sins.
St Louis Marie de Montfort once wrote “We will never do anything great for God unless we are willing to RISK for him.” Brothers and sisters, we will never do anything greater for God than “chancing our arm”, taking the risk of reaching out to another, either in confession of guilt or in forgiveness for hurt done to us. Don’t we have this saying in our culture: “To err is human, but to forgive is divine”?