Sunday, March 13, 2016

Wrath - Homily for the 5th Sunday in Lent

The scribes and Pharisees held Jesus in contempt. He had challenged their way of life and had even dared to teach them. In their anger, their need for retaliation, they brought into his midst the woman caught in adultery so as to “test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.”

Yet, during their impatient calls for the woman’s execution, Jesus is tranquil. He is in total control of his intellect and reason. He is unfazed by this mob and their blood lust.

The difference between Him and the crowd is striking. He forgives; they condemn. He is loving; they are full of wrath.

Wrath. It is the last of our Seven Deadly Sins that we will explore this Lent. And in order to understand it, we have to uncover what breeds it.

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It starts with a simple frustration, a sleight, a hurt. Maybe we weren’t heard or maybe someone ignored us. There grows impatience and a rumination about the hurt—like when someone gossips behind our backs. It can also grow from a sense of losing control, as when we worry about making ends meet or losing a loved one to illness.

In this hurt or in this fear, simple frustrations can easily grow. Anger is the symptom, the expression, of our dealing with the hurt or the fear. For example, when we are cut off on the road: we get angry because we feel disrespected and hurt, or because the recklessness of the other makes us fearful.

Sometimes anger can be virtuous, but when it is at the right time, at the right place, in the right degree, and when it is guided by reason and counsel (Schall)—as in the case where anger moves a person to sit a loved one down and have a come-to-Jesus talk about their drug addiction. Anger, therefore, if it is to be virtuous, must walk a middle road, between being overly angry and not angry enough.

In that light, there is a saying, “Tell me what makes you angry and I will tell you what you are. Tell me what does not make you angry, and I will likewise tell you what you are.” If we pause a moment and ask ourselves what makes us angry, we can learn a lot about who we are.

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Anger that is locked in the heart and which continues and grows old—this becomes an ill-will. A sullenness. Sometimes, people are so used to being angry that they don’t even know what they are angry about.

Anger that seeks punishment and is not put aside until it has done so, is called revenge. A relative of this is simply being ill-tempered or stern—someone quick to punish, which is opposed to playfulness.

Such anger, when it is focused on one’s neighbor, becomes quarrelsomeness. When it is focused on God, it becomes blasphemy. Sometimes anger is focused on one’s self and this is called self-loathing. Anger, in this way, can even breed depression.

A heart of anger affects one’s speech, and from it comes cussing and profanity. The word, “profanity,” comes from the Latin, pro-fanum, meaning “outside the temple.” Profanity, therefore, is language that is not appropriate for the temple—which you are, being the temple of the Holy Spirit. In time, profanity can become cursing, a wishing of ill things on another, which is the opposite of blessing.

All of these are contrary to love, for “love is patient, love is kind… It does not brood over injury…”

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In the His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that,

every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire.

Notice, then: our salvation is tied up with whether or not we put aside our condemning ways. If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. This was the problem with the Pharisees: they were condemning the woman and not forgiving. They had yet to learn the Our Father which prays, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…” If we do not forgive, we will not go to heaven.

This is why, in the very next line of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Communion with God first requires communion with each other. In the Catholic Church, therefore, before we receive Holy Communion, we have the Sign of Peace.

The Sign of Peace is not just simply a time of waving and greeting. It is a time where, having received the Peace of Christ, we then extend that forgiveness to others: our spouse, our neighbor, anyone here whom we need to forgive.

If you are not reconciled with your spouse or if there is someone here who you need to be reconciled with, do that first before your present yourself for Communion. Never receive the Eucharist with anger in your heart!

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Anger left unchecked becomes wrath. Spitefulness, outbursts, road-rage, passive aggressiveness, domestic violence, murder—all are bedfellows of wrath.

It is foolish. The wrathful person is ruled by their passions; or, in other words, he has forfeited his personal sovereignty over his emotions. We are called to use our intellect and will to temper our emotions. Wrath, however, willingly acquiesces to the tyranny of emotion which, in turn, makes us fools. In the words of Job (15:2): “Will a wise man . . . fill his stomach with burning heat?”

Because it is blinded by passion, wrath does not see. It does not see one’s neighbor as neighbor—and even less does it see the other as a child of God (cf. Cain and Abel, Gen 4:8ff)

Wrath does not see or acknowledge concupiscence—that woundedness which we all share, wherein we do not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want (cf. Rom 7:19). The wrathful person forgets that he, too, is a sinner. This is what the Pharisees forgot: they only saw the sin of the woman and forgot their own need to be forgiven.

Wrath never forgives and rarely seeks forgiveness. And, ultimately, it forgets that we are all of us, together, in a spiritual battle against the devil. Really, wrath fights the wrong fight. Instead of fighting the devil, it fights each other.

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The virtues that combat wrath are kindness and prudence, the fruits of which are forgiveness and tranquility: “Blessed are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God.”

To battle against wrath, we must employ our intellect and will so as to temper our passions. In so doing, we will become measured, wise, slow to respond to things that “set us off” and quicker still to forgive. We will also be able to let go of the past and see the beauty of the present moment:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Wrath and anger blind us to the graces that are renewed each morning (Lam 3:23).

So, if you are in an angry rut, go out and get some exercise and clear your head, burn off some of that energy. Punch your pillow or yell into a towel—I know, it sounds stupid, but it’s much smarter than yelling at your spouse, your kids, or kicking your dog.

And be prudent: if you are getting worked up about an article you are reading, it is probably best to avoid the comments section. In that line of thought, when it comes to political discourse, a person can be angry, so long as the anger is virtuous: that is, at the right time, the right place, the right degree, and guided by reason and counsel. Always being angry is not only sullen and not-healthy, but it endangers our soul: “for what does it profit a man if he give his soul to gain the whole world?” —much less, for politics!

And if we have been wrathful, foul-mouthed, spiteful, and so on, let us repent.

Hear the words of Jesus:

“Has no one condemned you?...
Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

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