I am thinking of offering a daily prize for the most obvious and shameless media breach of the Ninth Commandment.

 Last  night I was watching Sky News and their coverage of the funerals of the Foster family who were killed by the father before all their property and possessions were burned. The funerals had been conducted by The Venerable Tony Sadler and he was interviewed by the news presenter. Despite what he had actually said in the sermon (the relevant parts of which were broadcast) and what he said in the interview, the ‘headlines’ repeated by the presenter claimed: ‘Priest says forgiveness would be a step too far’. So, the story is that a priest urges people not to forgive Mr Foster for killing his wife and daughter and then himself.

Now, that might be an understandable reaction. But it isn’t what Tony Sadler said and it could not be inferred from what he did say unless whoever wrote the headline was either deliberately misrepresenting the point or was so ignorant he/she should not be employed in a communications medium. Sadler actually said that Christians have to forgive and can do no other. However, for some people at this point, this might be step too far. In other words, he was recognising and giving voice to what some people might be feeling – but he wasn’t commending it or re-writing Christian theology. This is more than just a matter of semantic distinction. The priest did not say that ‘forgiveness would be a step too far’.

But, it seems to me, Sadler was recognising what is often misunderstood when it comes to the matter of forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor and theologian who was hanged at Flossenburg in April 1945 for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, began his book The Cost of Discipleship with an excoriating rejection of what he called ‘billige Gnade’ (‘cheap grace’). In the context of forgiveness ‘cheap grace’ involves a form of religious behaviour that costs nothing – an easy theology that avoids the pain and the offence. Cheap forgiveness involves saying you forgive when you actually do not – or trying to forgive before you are ready to do so. Even worse, forgiveness must never be a form of escapism – a way of avoiding the pain of the offence by refusing to engage with it. This lay at the heart of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Surely the epitome of forgiveness is to be seen on the Cross. But here, at the place where the world’s violence is seen to be exacted on the innocent sufferer, forgiveness is not easy and is not sentimental – or simply a means to an end. Rather, forgiveness involves looking the offence (and the offender) in the eye and naming it for what it is. This is no escapism and it can’t be seen as cheap.

Forgiveness sets both the offender and the victim free – that is true. But it can’t be fabricated or played with. Forgiveness can only be offered when the offended is ready to do so honestly. That is what Tony Sadler was getting so right during his sensitive sermon. It is patently what the journalists at Sky News either did not understand or deliberately sacrificed for the sake of a more arresting headline.

So, which version of the great song is going to hit the Christmas number one spot tomorrow? In one sense, I don’t really care. Cohen goes to the bank and recovers some of the millions his finance bloke nicked and a brilliant example of song-writing gets heard by a generation growing up on pap.

Mark suggests that this is music for adolescents and I wonder how old he is. Why? Because I grew up in the seventies when Leonard Cohen’s songs were called ‘songs to slit your wrists to’ – dour, morose and ‘deep’. But, contrary to Mark’s perception, I have found Cohen’s lyrics still haunt me after all these years in a way that few others’ do. Cockburn is a poet, Dylan gets behind the safe places of the mind and scratches away, Clapton captures the blues in a way few others can – and Cohen is a craftsman who creates lyrics that work at lots of levels.

Whatever we conclude about taste, though, the powerful thing about ‘Hallelujah’ is the way he suffuses spirituality with physicality and vice versa. He refuses to allow the dichotomy that disembodies spirituality and tacitly embraces Plato. This is why I think it is so good that this Christmas we will have a song at number one in the charts that ‘gets’ the point of Christmas: God opting into a messy and complicated world – not helping people escape from it. That, it seems to me, is what the Incarnation is all about. The Word became flesh – and we shouldn’t try to reverse the process just because it is less complicated.

Anyway, I’m visiting my parents in Liverpool and will reflect in the next couple of days on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interviews on the global financial crisis and the possibilities for disestablishment of the Church of England. I bet you can’t wait…