Reconciliation is much in the news at the moment. Recently, Prince William joined the Queen, and many others, in urging the nation to ‘come together‘ at a time of deep divisions, revealed by the never-ending Brexit debate. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are seeking to reconcile different strands of their party, after a number of MPs formed an independent group. And across the world, we are seeing desperate attempts at reconciliation both between nations, such as India and Pakistan, and within them, as in Venezuela.
These calls for reconciliation chime very well with the season of Lent, which started this week. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday reminds us all about the origins of the season:
At first this season of Lent was observed by those being prepared for Baptism at Easter and by those seeking restoration to the Church’s fellowship.
In other words, Lent was a time when people who had become estranged from the Church for whatever reason, could return to full fellowship through observing a season of penitence and fasting. It was a time for encouraging people to be reconciled to each other as well, to put aside old disputes and bitterness, and come together at the foot of the cross.
As our readings today demonstrate, though, the theme of reconciliation is not limited to Lent but runs right through our Bible. In our gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus reminds his hearers that they cannot be at peace with God, unless they are at peace with their neighbour (Matt. 5:21-25). In Romans (5:6-11), and in our call to worship from Colossians (1:19-20), Paul is clear that in Jesus, God was seeking to reconcile humanity, and indeed all creation, to himself, saving us all from the deadly effects of sin. All of these themes come together, additionally, in our celebration Holy Communion today, where we are celebrating that gracious act of reconciliation between God and his creation, and by extension between ourselves.
I have had cause to reflect upon this theme of reconciliation in the few last week: upon how it can work, and why it so often does not. My thoughts began during my half term holiday the other week, when I was lucky enough to visit Madrid. While there visited the ‘Valley of the Fallen’. This is a vast site, about an hour’s drive from the city centre. It was clearly visible when we flew over on our way into Madrid airport and the complex includes an enormous underground basilica, a monastery and the world’s largest cross, reaching 500 feet into the sky. The site was created following the conclusion of Spain’s violent and bloody Civil War (1936-39), which was waged between the Republican / Socialists on one side, and the, ultimately triumphant, Nationalists / Fascists, led by Franco, on the other. This is a conflict that will be known to many of us through the enormous amount of literature and art it inspired, not least George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Picasso’s Guernica, among many others.
Franco directed the construction of the site as a “national act of atonement” and reconciliation but sadly it failed to achieve this lofty aim. Visiting the site is a somewhat chilling experience. Everything is built on a monumental scale, not least the vast, industrial-looking concrete Pieta above the entrance door and, of course, the enormous cross. The basilica itself can only be described as ‘sepulchral’ – vast and empty, with no natural light. At the very heart of the worship space, you find the tomb of the great Caudillo himself, Franco – with fresh flowers seemingly laid most days. It is shocking to see it, and remember that this man was a direct contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini, sharing their views and happily murdering thousands of his fellow citizens.
The truth is that as an act of reconciliation, this site is an abysmal failure. Built largely by Republican prisoners of war, it is utterly unrepentant about the crimes of the Franco regime and makes no real attempt to reach out to those who fought on the ‘wrong side’. The adoption of so much Christian iconography and narratives, such as the frightening scenes from Revelation depicted on the basilica’s walls, seem not so much to be an attempt at reconciliation, as an assertion that ‘God was on Franco’s side’. It is little wonder that since its construction, the Valley has been a source of contention, rather than reconciliation. Most recently, there is a vigorous national debate about the Socialist government’s attempts to exhume Franco’s body and remove him from the basilica. The debate has illuminated the deep, unreconciled, tensions within Spanish society over how it commemorates and understands the Civil War – tensions that show few signs of abating at present.
When I returned to work the following Monday, one of the first tasks I faced was reconciliation on a slightly smaller – and less historic stage – when I attended a meeting of the District Reconciliation Committee. This group of lay and ordained Methodists, from across London, meets together to share the work of bringing individuals together in our local churches. Most often, we are dealing with cases referred to us, when a complaint has been made and attempts are being made to avoid formal processes and encourage the different parties to talk through their difficulties together. I often reflect that the situations with which we deal are remarkably similar to those that Paul writes about in his epistles to the early Christians: strong personalities within churches, the temptations of sex and money, and the misuse of spiritual authority!
As I sat in the meeting, having read the morning’s newspaper, full of stories of our total failure to reconcile as a nation over Brexit, I reflected upon what makes true reconciliation possible. There is much I could say on this subject, but I will just briefly mention three requirements this morning.
The first is truth. In our gospel reading, Jesus describes a true worshipper of God as someone who is honest before God and with themselves. If you have a disagreement with another, he states, admit it freely and go and do something about it (Matt. 5:23-24). Elsewhere, Jesus famously said, I have come that you might “know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). So often, though, we shy away from the truth because it is to hurtful and painful.
In the District Reconciliation Committee, as with all reconciliation work, our first step is always to allow people to tell their truth independently and uninterrupted. Only when this has been done, if it is appropriate, will we try to bring people together and listen to the others’ truth. Often, of course, we will have to help people sort out the lies from the truth but very often what you hear is actually truth from two different perspectives.
That recognition that the truth must be heard is the vital foundation of reconciliation. It is no surprise that the post-Apartheid government in South Africa did not establish a Reconciliation Committee but a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It is also why the Valley of the Fallen fails as a tool of reconciliation – because there is space for only one side of the truth. That is not to say that all Republicans were heroes and all Nationalists evil: it is to allow space for an honest re-telling of the past from different perspectives.
It is also why our current Brexit debate has become so poisonous. The first casualty of the campaign seemed to be the truth, and the campaign itself was the culmination of years of denial and a refusal to hear certain voices within our nation. I am so desperately sorry that we seem never able to raise up leaders and politicians who can say sorry or acknowledge faults. Nor seemingly raise up journalists who are interested in presenting a rounded view of our world. Nor, perhaps most importantly, raise up people who are interested in having their views challenged by the truth of others.
Coming to our communion table today, we come ‘just as we are’: fully known by God, with no falsehood or deceit possible. We come unable to hide the truth about ourselves from God, yet miraculously knowing that we are somehow still fully loved. That is the beginning of true reconciliation.
That brings me to the second vital aspect of reconciliation: a genuine desire to be reconciled. Again, our gospel reading speaks of someone who wishes to be at peace with God and his neighbour, and therefore is willing to run across town to attempt reconciliation (Matt. 5:25). And again, reflecting on the work of reconciliation within our churches, I am reminded of how, too often, we have to shake our heads with sorrow because one or either of the parties simply has no desire whatsoever to be reconciled. They want to go straight to the complaints process and be vindicated, even when it is quite clear to everyone else that there is fault (and truth) on both sides.
As we look at our world and its history, we see very clearly that reconciliation and true peace come about only when those involved genuinely want it and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary for it to come about. In our modern age, we have seen it with France and Germany after the Second World War. To a considerable extent, we have seen it in Northern Ireland too, but even in both these cases there are always those who would rather turn the clock back. Reconciliation can happen after conflict, when people have seen the horrors of conflict and division, and want something different for the future. But they must want it to happen. One of the deeply challenging questions hanging over the Valley of the Fallen is whether this can ever be considered as a genuine attempt at reconciliation. Did it ever represent a real desire to be reconciled or merely a bold testament that one side of the conflict ‘won’. At its inauguration in 1959 (nearly 20 years after work had started), Franco, according to his biographer Paul Preston:
gloated over the enemy that had been obliged ‘to bite the dust’ and showed not the slightest trace of desire to see reconciliation between Spaniards.
Here, and elsewhere, it would seem that there is little desire to pay the heavy price that true reconciliation requires.
As we turn our hearts to the communion table this morning, we recall that the sacrifice it represents is an open invitation to be reconciled with our God and with each other. To be reconciled, though, involves a genuine desire from us – to take that all important first step toward reconciliation.
This leads me neatly to my third and final point this morning. As Christians, we believe that the intervention of Jesus Christ is essential for true reconciliation. As I mentioned earlier, I felt somewhat sickened at the Valley of the Fallen by the adoption of Christian iconography for something that seemed to have so little to do with Christ. In our human life together, too often reconciliation seems absolutely impossible – be that within our world, our nation or even our own families. The feelings, the history, the pain is too strong. As we look at the conflicts and divisions of our world, not least in our own nation at present, we could perhaps be forgiven for just shaking our heads and believing that reconciliation is simply impossible.
What is required is a mediator. Someone to show us a better way; to set us an example that we may find impossible to follow. But follow it we must, if our world is to have any future at all. As Paul reminded his listeners, 2,000 years ago (Romans 5:8-10):
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
In Christ, God took the initiative to reach out across the chasm that had come to separate humanity from its creator, and from one another. Through love, pain and sacrifice, Christ made reconciliation possible; he broke the chains of sin and division that bind humans to a never-ending cycle of violence and death; he spread wide his arms on the cross to show the depths of God’s love for each one of us.
It is that example that we must follow today, if we are to have any hope for the future. It is that reconciling love we celebrate in our communion today. It is that work of reconciliation, in his name, to which we pledge ourselves today. It is that divine intervention, opening human hearts and minds to the possibilities of peace and reconciliation, for which we pray today. Let us lift high the cross of Christ. Not as the symbol of factional triumph as in the Valley of the Fallen, but of true reconciliation with God and with each other, brought about by the precious blood of our Lord and Saviour. As we shall sing in a moment in Charles Wesley’s hymn Jesus, Lord, we look to thee:
Free from anger and from pride,
let us thus in God abide;
all the depth of love express,
all the height of holiness.