In Jerusalem there is a memorial to the six million Jews of the European Holocaust. It’s called Yad Vashem, and if you ever go to Jerusalem it’s one of the things you absolutely must see.

I have been there twice, and the experience is life-changing. Yad Vashem has the outward appearance of a museum, but inside it’s more like a shrine. As you enter you are drawn into a deep and awesome silence. The sights and sounds leave you speechless. You pass through galleries of photographs impossible to describe. The artifacts and memorabilia of organised slaughter begin to empty the mind of all comprehension.

I remember turning a corner and coming face to face with the single tiny shoe of a two year old child which had been retrieved from the gas chamber at Dachau. My first daughter was exactly the same age at the time, and I suddenly couldn’t stop the tears from flowing down my face as I thought about those innocent children huddled together for the last time with their agonized parents under the hissing pipes.

A few years ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu went to Yad Vashem. He is a man accustomed to horror, as we know, but when he emerged from the building he was shaken and numb. A crowd of reporters pressed around him with questions, and as he tried to find words to say, when he must have felt like crying, he said something about forgiveness. I don’t remember his exact words, but he uttered a plea for forgiveness as the only possible response to such moral enormity that can save us from losing our humanity.

He was speaking, of course, from his perspective as a Christian. But the next day he was vilified in the media. He was accused of insensitivity and superficiality. How could Jews forgive, they asked, when they are still the victims of terror and discrimination all over the world? It is too easy, they said, to ask other people to forgive when you haven’t experienced their suffering for yourself.

I thought it was an unfair accusation to level against Desmond Tutu of all people, because Desmond speaks about forgiveness from the depths of personal experience - experience of that other great mass obscenity of the 20th century called apartheid. Desmond Tutu has learned from all the pain and suffering of South Africa that to remain an unforgiving victim all your life is to lose your humanity just as surely as the torturers and murderers who violate the innocent without pity.

One thing is true, however. Forgiveness is a personal act. It can only come from within oneself. We cannot require other people to forgive, or demand their forgiveness, especially if we have not suffered their losses or wounds. And the courage to forgive is proved only in the face of the unforgivable. It is one thing to pardon a casual slight or unintended hurt. It is quite another to free oneself of the intentional and malicious harm of another.

As I write, there is a story in the news about a priest in England who has resigned from her parish ministry because she cannot forgive the suicide bombers who killed her 24 year old daughter in the London subway bombings last year. Her integrity cannot bear the role she must play as a priest. No one, who has not suffered her grief, should criticise.

Easter flowers and the Paschal Candle await the Great Celebration at St. Mary’s Kerrisdale

And yet the Christian gospel remains clear. “Do not be overcome by evil” says St. Paul in Romans 12 “but overcome evil with good. If your enemies are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty give them something to drink, for by doing this you heap burning coals upon their head.” Oscar Wilde said the same thing, with slightly more sarcasm: “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.”

The Christian response to malevolence and evil is to remain grounded in God and in the strength of the Easter Gospel. The supreme example is Jesus Christ, whose last words from the Cross were words of forgiveness, releasing his torturers from their guilt in order to save them from the evil that possessed them. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There was such courage in the heart of Jesus, at the very moment of death, that it changed history. We who possess the same spirit of Jesus possess the same courage and strength.

We are forgiven. And in forgiveness we find new life. This is the message of the Gospel. This is the power of the Cross and the point of the Resurrection. God is a merciful God, a God of unconditional love whose grace and compassion flow through the universe. A great Anglican divine, Thomas Fuller, once wrote: ‘He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass. For everyone has the need to be forgiven.”

Let us not speak lightly of forgiveness, nor imagine it has no cost. But let us remember that in forgiving, we create the possibility of Easter, of new life, both for ourselves and for others. This is the glory of the empty tomb, and the pathway back to our own humanity.