The Gospel in Miniature

Most of us are familiar with this famous passage from the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him might not perish but might have everlasting life (John 3:16). For many people it serves as a kind of mini-gospel.

There is something of that same quality in St. Paul’s beautiful summary of salvation and of the gospel message: For we were, by nature, children of wrath, like the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved (Ephesians 2:3-5).

There is a compact beauty to this text from Ephesians. It paints a beautiful picture of the love of God the Father for us despite our terrible condition: we are children of wrath and are dead in our sins. The breakthrough begins with two simple words: “But God ….” From there, love comes to the rescue.

Let’s examine some of the teachings in this mini-gospel, this summary of salvation.

The Condition of our Salvation Salvation presupposes there is something from which we must be saved. This brief text lists two fundamental conditions from which we must be snatched and saved: disaffection and death.

Disaffection – The text says, By nature, we were children of wrath. The word wrath seems to be a synonym for anger, but in the New Testament it points to an ongoing state of aversion to or disaffection with the holiness of God. Wrath speaks to our inability to endure the holiness of God in our present sinful state. Only the grace of God can adequately prepare us to endure the day of his coming and stand when he appears (Malachi 3:2).

The Greek word translated here as “wrath” is orgḗ, and it speaks to a settled anger or aversion arising from an ongoing or fixed opposition; it is different from a sudden outburst of anger. Wrath is a disposition that steadfastly opposes or recoils from someone or something that cannot be endured.

Experientially, “wrath” speaks to the utter incompatibility of the Lord’s holiness and our current condition. To speak of the wrath of God does not mean that God is angry. Rather, it speaks to our inability to endure the light of His truth and heat of His love. It is like a man who emerges from a dark room into the bright sunshine and finds the light of day too harsh to handle. The problem is not with the sunlight; it is internal to the man, who has become accustomed to the darkness. Nevertheless, he continues to protest that it is the light that is harsh. This is our human condition without grace. We simply cannot endure the light and heat of God, who is like a blazing sun of love and truth. Only Jesus Christ, by His grace, can prepare us to enter into the full presence of God.

Before Christ, we were children of wrath, like the rest. Even to the great and holy Moses, God had to say, You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live (Ex 33:20). Only Jesus can enable us to see the Father’s beautiful face.

Death – The text says that we were dead in our sins. Thus, this problem was not going to go away through any action of ours. A few more spiritual push-ups or alms for the poor were not going to be enough—or even possible—because we were dead in our sins. Dead people cannot do anything but lie there and be acted upon by others. It doesn’t get more serious than being dead in our sins. Only God, who is life and existence Himself, can resolve this for us.

The Cause of our Salvation – The text speaks to the primary cause of our salvation: But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us ….

To love is to will the good of the other. We who are human almost always have imperfect love. We love others, but we also expect to get something in return. If we don’t think we are getting enough back, we easily become resentful and may begin to withhold our love. God’s love, however, is perfect and gratuitous. All that God got back in return for loving us was the cross!

This is the beauty of the text: we are saved by God on account of the great love with which He loved us.

Why does God love us? Because God is love and that is what love does—it loves. Love is more than an emotion, something we feel—it is willing the good of the other. Loving does not always involve affirmation; at times it will involve rebuke and correction. Sin and error are never the good that God wills for us. Thus, even when he must punish us or allow us to endure tribulations, it is only for our greater good, that we come to wisdom, repentance, goodness, and truth.

Love and richness in mercy are also connected in this passage. Even our imperfect love for others brings forth an understanding and a compassion that makes us more patient and more willing to presume good faith on the part of those we love. Due to our imperfections, our mercy can err by excess or defect. We may grow overly angry with those we love and be more severe with them because the blows they inflict upon us are more painful. On the other hand, sometimes we are overly merciful to those we love, becoming too tolerant and overlooking serious issues. Thus, imperfect love and imperfect mercy are often our lot.

Of course, God is perfect love. While He is rich in mercy, His mercy is His willingness to suffer on our behalf, but not in a way that harms us or inhibits our freedom. That is why one of the great evils of our time is the preaching of mercy detached from necessary repentance. Repentance is the key that unlocks mercy. It is the door we freely open to God, admitting our need for mercy and allowing Him to apply its healing affects. His rich mercy is freely offered, not imposed.

As the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches, if we take one step by God’s grace, the Father takes two steps and starts running toward us. Yes, our Heavenly Father loves us and is rich in mercy, rejoicing in our return and summoning the angels and saints in Heaven to the celebratory feast!

Here, then, is the cause of our salvation: God’s great love for us and the richness of His mercy. We have but to say yes by turning the key of repentance and opening the door of our heart to His rich, necessary, freely-offered mercy.

The Cure of our Salvation The text says that God gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved.

We who were dead in our sins and who were children of wrath like the rest are brought back to life in Christ. Notice that it is in Christ that we are saved. That is to say, Jesus does not act upon us in a merely extrinsic way. Rather, He takes us to Himself and makes us members of His Body. He is the Life as well as the Way and the Truth. He incorporates us, makes us members of His body, so that we live in Him and through Him.

  • Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:27).
  • Are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We therefore were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in resurrection. … Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him (Romans 6:2-8).
  • Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him … so also the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me (Jn 6:54-55).

So, the Father gives us life in Christ not just by Christ. To be saved and no longer be dead in our sins, to live, is to be in union with Him. This is more than a juridical act, more than an imputed righteousness; it is a saving relationship and incorporation into Christ’s Body. Christ’s Body is no mere abstraction or allegory; it is the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. It is the living, active presence of Christ in the world (see Eph 5:23, Col 1:18, Eph 1:23, Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 12:22ff, inter al).

It by this grace that we are saved, but by what grace? By the grace of a life-changing transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. The grace by which we are saved is Christ Himself and our incorporation into Him. It our remaining with Him through the relationship that is the grace of faith. He saves us by the rebirth and washing of baptism, strengthens us in the Sacrament of Confirmation, feeds us with His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, and heals our wounds in the Sacraments of Confession and Anointing of the Sick.

Here, then, is a kind of mini-Gospel or a summary of our salvation from St. Paul. It is beautiful and compact, worthy of a framed copy in a special place—or better yet, hanging on your refrigerator door.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gospel in Miniature

Reluctant Prophet – The Story of Jonah

Jonah, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Of all the prophets, Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant; his struggle with sin is not hidden. We are currently reading Jonah’s story in daily Mass. In the story we see a portrait of sin and of God’s love for sinners. Psalm 139 says, beautifully,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps 139: 7-10).

Let’s examine the story of Jonah and allow its teachings to reach us.

I. Defiance This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.

To defy means to resist what one is told to do, openly and boldly. Defiance also indicates a lack of faith because it comes from the Latin “dis” (against) and “fidere” (believe). Hence Jonah is not just insubordinate; he is unbelieving and untrusting.

His scoffing and defiance likely result from hatred or excessive nationalism. Nineveh is the capital of Syria, the mortal enemy of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness they will grow stronger. Rather than trusting God, he brazenly disobeys, foolishly thinking that he can outrun God.

II. Distance He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.

Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline of modern-day Spain. In order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah runs some 1500 miles away. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.

Note that he also puts down good money in order to flee. Indeed, many people spend lots of money and go miles out of their way in order to be able to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive—but many seem quite willing to pay the price.

The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous and less costly as well. Like Jonah, though, many line up to pay the price and take the long, painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.

How much of our trouble comes from our sin? The great majority of it. So much suffering, so much expense, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. The bottom line (if you’ll pardon the financial pun) is that sinful choices are usually very costly.

III. Disturbance The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.

Jonah’s defiance sends him and others headlong into a storm that grows ever deeper. The teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances, and troubles. As our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces ever more powerful.

Note that Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important lesson: in our sin, our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life but also into the lives of others. What we do, or fail to do, affects others.

The mariners, fearing for their lives, also lose wealth and suffer great losses (by throwing their cargo overboard) on account of Jonah’s sinfulness.

Similarly, in our own culture today a good deal of pain and loss results from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness and sexual misbehavior, many families have been torn apart. There is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that come from broken or malformed families. It is of course the children who suffer the most pain and injustice as a result of so much bad adult behavior.

To all this pain can be added many other sufferings caused by our greed, addiction, lack of forgiveness, pride, impatience, and lack of charity. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us but others around us as well.

No one is merely an individual; we are also members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.

Jonah is a danger and a cause of grief to others around him. So, too, are we when we defiantly indulge sinfulness.

IV. Delirium Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.

While all these storms (which he caused) are raging, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a moral sleep, talking about their rights and insisting that what they do is “nobody else’s business.” Yet all the while the storm winds buffet and others suffer for what they do. So easily they remain locked in self-deception and rationalizations, ignoring the damage they are inflicting upon others.

Many people today talk about “victimless sins,” actions that supposedly don’t hurt anyone. Those who are morally alert do not say such things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral slumber, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble. All the while, they continue to ramble on about their right to do as they please.

V. Dressing Down The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing?” They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.

In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet, unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for a prophet when those whom he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!

First there comes the pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your delusions. Stop with your self-justifying slogans and look at what’s really going on!

Next they say to him, “Pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God, from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours—but call on the Lord!

This is what every sinner, whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up and look at what you’re doing; see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us. Turn back to God lest we all perish.

VI. Despair They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”

Jonah is now beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more with worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10). Somewhat like Judas, Jonah and many other sinners do not repent to the Lord but rather are merely ashamed of themselves.

In effect, Jonah says to them, “Kill me. I do not deserve to live.” This is not repentance; it is despair.

VII. Dignity still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.

Surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least not as the first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen deserve our love and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, returning crime for crime, sin for sin.

But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to correct with love.

It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. Our first instinct should always be to respect the dignity of every person—even great sinners—and strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.

VIII. Deliverance Then they cried to the LORD, “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit.” Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.

In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord. Somehow, they sense His just verdict yet they fear their own judgment and ask for His mercy.

In many American courtrooms, upon the pronouncement of a death sentence, the judge says, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Even in the sad situation in which we can do little but prevent people from ever harming others, we ought to appreciate their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.

God does deliver Jonah. After his “whale” of a ride, a ride in which he must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, Jonah is finally delivered by God right back to the shore of Joppa where it all began.

IX. Determination Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-3).

Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He is the God of the second chance. Thank you, Lord, for your grace and mercy. He remembers our sins no more. In effect, God says to Jonah, “Now, where were we?”

God does not save us merely for our own sake, but also for the sake of others with whom our life is intertwined. Jonah will go finally to Nineveh and there proclaim a message that will be heeded by those who are so lost in sin that they do not know their right hand from their left (see Jonah 4:11). Hmm, now why does this description seem so familiar?

Here is a video of a performance of the Peccavimus (we have sinned) from the oratorio “Jonas,” by Giacomo Carissimi. It is a luscious, heartfelt piece depicting the repentance of the Ninevites. I wonder if (and hope that) the young people who sang it understood its significance for them, too.

Dimensions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

credit: זלדה10, wikimedia

What Jesus teaches in this Sunday’s Gospel is one of those parables that rock our world and challenge our worldly way of thinking. Frankly, that is one of its purposes. We are tempted to side with the laborers who worked the longest, thinking that their being paid the same amount as those who worked only for an hour is unfair.

Think very carefully before asking God to be “fair.” What we really should ask of God is that He be merciful, for if He were fair, we’d all be in Hell right now. We have no innate capacity to stand before God in pure justice; we simply cannot measure up. It is only grace and mercy that will win the day for us. So be very careful about challenging God’s fairness. In fact, when we see Him being merciful to someone else, we ought to rejoice, for it means that we might stand a chance.

There are other aspects of this Gospel that are important to learn from, in particular, the various dispositions of discipleship. As the parable unfolds, we can see five teachings. Let’s consider each in turn.

I.  The AVAILABILITY of Discipleship – The text says, A landowner went at dawn to hire laborers to work in his field … He went later and found others standing idle … “Why do you stand here all day idle?”

What are described here are “day workers” or “day laborers.” These were men who stood in public places hoping to be hired for the day. It was and still is a tough life. If you worked, you ate; if you didn’t, you might have little or nothing to eat. They were hired on a day-to-day basis, only when needed. This is a particularly burdensome form of poverty for its uncertainty and instability. Men like these were and are the poorest of the poor.

Notice, however, that their poverty, their hunger, makes them available. Each morning they show up and are ready, available to be hired. Their poverty also motivates them to seek out the landowner and indicate that they are ready and willing to work. The well-fed and the otherwise employed do not show up; they are not available. There’s something about poverty that makes these men available. Because their cup is empty, it is able to be filled.

We are these men. We are the poor who depend upon God for everything. Sometimes we don’t want to admit it, but we are. Every now and then it is made plain to us how poor, vulnerable, and needy we really are; this tends to make us seek God. In our emptiness, poverty, and powerlessness, suddenly there is room for God. Suddenly our glass, too often filled with the world, is empty enough for God to find room. In our pain we stand ready for God to usher us into the vineyard of His Kingdom. An old gospel song says, “Lord, I’m available to you; my storage is empty and I’m available to you.” It is our troubles that make us get up and go out with the poor to seek the Lord and be available to Him. When things are going too well, heaven knows where we are to be found! Another gospel song says, “Lord don’t move my mountain but give me the strength to climb it. Don’t take away my stumbling blocks but lead me all around, ’cause Lord when my life gets a little too easy, you know I tend to stray from thee.

Yes, we might wish for a trouble-free life, but then where would we be? Would we seek the Lord? Would we make ourselves available to God? Would we ever call on Him?

II.  The AUTHORITY of Discipleship – The text says, The LandOWNER said, “Go into my vineyard” … HE sent them into HIS vineyard.

Notice that it is the landowner who calls the shots. Too many who call themselves the Lord’s disciples rush into His vineyard with great ideas and grand projects that they have never really asked God about. This passage teaches us that entrance into the vineyard requires the owner’s permission. If we expect to see fruits (payment for the work) at the end of the day, we have to be on the list of “approved workers.”

Fruitful discipleship is based on a call from the Lord. Scripture says, Unless the Lord builds the House, they that labor to build it labor in vain (Ps 127:1). Too many people run off and get married, take new jobs, accept promotions, start projects, and so forth without ever asking God.

True discipleship requires the Lord’s to call us first: “Go into my vineyard.” Got a bright idea? Ask God first. Discern His call with the Church and a good spiritual director, guide, or pastor.

III.  The ALLOTMENT of Discipleship – The text says, The vineyard owner came at dawn, 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.

We may wonder why God calls some early and others late; it’s none of our business. He does call at different times. Even those whom He calls early are not always asked to do everything right now. There is a timing to discipleship.

Moses thought he was ready at age 40, and in his haste murdered a man. God said, “Not now!” and made him wait until he was 80.

Sometimes we’ve got something we want to do but the Lord says, “Not yet.” We think, “But Lord, this is a great project and many will benefit!” But the Lord says, “Not yet.” We say, “But Lord, I’m ready to do it now!” And the Lord says, “Not yet.”

Sometimes we think we’re ready, but we’re really not. An old gospel song says, “God is preparing me. He’s preparing me for something I cannot handle right now. He’s making me ready, just because he cares. He’s providing me with what I’ll need to carry out the next matter in my life. God is preparing me. Just because he cares for me. He’s maturing me, arranging me, realigning my attitude. He’s training me, teaching me, tuning me, purging me, pruning me. He’s preparing me.”

IV.  The ABIDING of Discipleship – The text says, When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to the foreman, “… summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.”

Notice that the wages are paid in the evening and in the order determined by the landowner. The lesson is simple: we’ve got to stay in the vineyard. Some people start things but do not finish them. If you’re not there at the end of the day, there’s no pay.

Scripture says that we must persevere. Here are three passages carrying this message: But he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mat 24:13). To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life (Rom 2:7). You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (Heb 10:36).

Yes, we must work until evening comes. Saying that we had faith and received all our sacraments when we were young will not suffice. We have to work until evening. An old spiritual says, “Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out.” How about you?

V.  The ASSESSMENT of Discipleship – The text says, Those hired first grumbled … “We bore the heat of the day and burdens thereof.”

The workers hired early think of their entrance into the vineyard and its labors as a “burden.” The vineyard, of course, is really the Kingdom of God. Many lukewarm “cradle Catholics” consider the faith to be a burden; they think that sinners “have all the fun.” Never mind that such thinking is completely perverse; it is held by many anyway, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Consider the laborers hired last. Were they having a picnic? Not exactly. Most were resigning themselves to the fact that they and their families would have little or nothing to eat that night. Similarly, most sinners are not “living the life of Riley.” Repeated, lifelong sin brings much grief: disease, dissipation of wealth, regret, loss of family, and addiction. No matter what they tell you, sinners do not have all the fun.

Further, being a Christian is not a burden. If we accept it, we receive a whole new life from Christ: a life of freedom, purity, simplicity, victory over sin, joy, serenity, vision, and destiny.

How do you view the Christian life? Is it a gift, a treasure beyond compare no matter its difficulties? Or is it a burden, a bearing of labor in the heat of the day? Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. The passage goes on to describe our “works” not as burdens but as something God enables us to do: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

So these are five dispositions of discipleship, as taught by the Lord in this parable.

Note well what the Lord teaches, for too often we want to decide what it means to be a disciple. Beware, for the worst kind of disciple is the one who gets out ahead of the Lord and tries to define his or her own role. Jesus is Lord; let Him lead. Here are some final questions for you: Are you a disciple who is glad at being called, the earlier the better? Or are you like the disciples who grumbled at having to do all the work in the heat of the day? Is discipleship delightful or dreary for you?

The song in the video below says, “I’m available to you.” It reminds us that the owner still seeks souls to enter His vineyard. He wants to use your voice to say to someone, “You, too, go into my vineyard!”

Three Hard Sayings of the Lord That Offend Modern Notions

The Gospel for today’s Mass features two hard sayings, or expressions, of the Lord. They are “hard” because they offend against a modern notion. And since they are difficult for us “moderns” to hear and we are easily taken aback by their abrupt and coarse quality. Here is the “offending verse:

Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6)

The modern notion offended against here is: You’re not supposed to call people ugly names. This notion, though not wrong in itself, has become a rather excessively applied norm in our times and also misses the point in terms of this passage. We live in dainty times where many people are easily offended. These are thin-skinned times of fragile egos where the merest slight often brings threats of lawsuits. Even observations intended as humor are excoriated and hurtful and out of line. And so, horror of horrors, here we have Jesus calling certain (unnamed) people dogs and swine! Explanations are demanded in times like these of such horrible words coming forth from the sinless Lord Jesus.

Sophistication is needed – One of the reasons we are so easily offended in our modern age is, frankly, that we lack sophistication. We seem to have lost understanding, to a great extent, of simile and metaphor.

A simile is a figure of speech comparing two unlike things and normally includes words such as “like” and “as.” For example: “He is as swift and strong as a horse!” Similes have the two ideas remain distinct in spite of their similarities.

Metaphors compare two things without using “like” or “as”. For example, “He’s a real work-horse!” Metaphors are usually more forceful than similes since the distinction intended between the compared things is often ambiguous. For example if I were to observe someone doing something mean or cruel I might say, “Wow, what a dog!” Now the expression does not mean I have gone blind and think that this person is actually a dog. I mean that he is manifesting qualities of a (wild or mean) dog. However, just how distinct he is from an actual dog is left open to interpretation. But for the record, I am NOT saying he is a dog.

The point here is that some sophistication and appreciation for the nuances of language and the art of comparison are necessary as we negotiate life’s road. In modern times we seem to have lost some of this and so, are easily offended.

This does not mean that no one ever intends offense, it only means that more is necessary than simply hearing everything in a crudely literal way. The usual modern person in my example would object, “Hey, he called me a dog!” No, what he means is that you have taken on some of the qualities of a wild dog. Now to what extent he means you are like a dog is intentionally ambiguous and an invitation for you to think of how you may have surrendered some of your humanity and become more like baser creatures.

Examining what the Lord says – This sort of sophistication is necessary as we examine two of the Lord’s “offensive” sayings here. Let’s look at them both in terms of their historical root and then to what is being taught.

1. First of all let’s be clear that the Jewish people were not indicating positive traits when they used the term dog or swine to refer to someone. Dogs in the ancient world were not the pets of today. They were wild, and ran in packs. Pigs were unclean animals and something no Jew would ever touch, let alone eat. These are strong metaphors indicating significant aversion to some aspect of the person.

2. Do not give what is holy to dogs– This was a Jewish saying that was rooted in tradition. Some of the meat that had been sacrificed to God in the Temple could be eaten by humans, especially the Levites. But in no way was it ever to be thrown to dogs or other animals to eat. If it was not eaten by humans it was to be burned. Hence holy and sanctified meat was not to be thrown to dogs because it was holy.

3. [Do not] throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot – Pearls were an image for wisdom in the Old Testament. Now the point here is that pigs valued nothing they could not eat. Pearls could not be eaten, thus if they were placed before pigs they would sniff them, determine they were not food, and simply trample them underfoot.

4. So what is being said? Sacred matters, sacred things, wisdom, and participation in sacred things should not be easily offered to those who are incapable of appreciating them. There are those who despise what we call holy. There is little that can be done in such cases except deny them the pleasure of tearing apart holy things or trampling them underfoot. Jesus is saying that some people are like dogs who tear apart sacred things and have no concept of their holiness. Some people are like pigs who do not appreciate anything they cannot eat or use for their pleasure. They simply trample under foot anything that does not please them or make sense to them in the same way that pigs would trample pearls underfoot or dogs irreverently tear apart blessed food dedicated to God.

Further, there are some who, though not hostile, are ignorant of sacred realities. They do not perhaps intend offense but it is necessary that they should be taught and then admitted to sacred rites or further instructed on deeper mysteries. Children, for example in the Western Rite, are not given the Holy Eucharist until they can distinguish it from ordinary food. Further, it is a necessary truth that some more advanced spiritual notions such as contemplative prayer are not often appreciated by those who have not been led there in stages.

The Lord is thus indicating that holy things are to be shared in appropriate ways with those who are able to appreciate them. It is usually necessary to be led into the Holy and just walk in unprepared or unappreciative.

In the ancient Church there was something known as the disciplina arcani (discipline of the secret) wherein only the baptized and confirmed would be admitted to the sacred mysteries of the Liturgy. Given the holiness with which the early Christians regarded the Mass, they exactly observed what the Lord is saying here. Careful instruction and gradual introduction to sacred truth was necessary before entering something so holy as the Sacred Liturgy. Even the unintentional trampling underfoot of sacred realities through simple ignorance was to be strictly avoided. To be sure, these were difficult times for the Church and persecution was common. Hence the Lord’s warning to protect the holy things was not just that they might be trampled underfoot but also that those who were like unto wild dogs and swine might not turn and tear you to pieces (Mat 7:6).

In the centuries after the Edict of Constantine the disciplina arcani gradually dissipated. Some remnants of it revived in the modern RCIA wherein the Catechumens are dismissed halfway through the Mass to reflect more fully on the Liturgy of the Word. And yet we have much to relearn in modern times about a deep reverence for the Sacred Liturgy. It would NOT seem opportune to lock our Church doors as in ancient times. But preserving good order in the Liturgy, encouraging reverence, proper dress, and instilling deeper knowledge of the true meaning of the Sacred Liturgy are all important ways to ensure that we do not trample underfoot what is sacred.

The Third Hard Saying destroys a notion that is to most moderns a dogma. The “dogma” is that just about everyone is going to heaven. It is one of the most damaging notions of modern times since it removes a sense of urgency in earnestly seeking our salvation and staying on the narrow road that leads to salvation.  Against this destructive and presumptive notion of practically universal salvation Jesus says,

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How small the gate and narrow the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 7:12-13).

Do you see that word: few. We need to sober up and come to a biblical understanding that our salvation must be earnestly desired and sought. God’s love for us is not lacking, but our love for him often is. “Many” says Jesus are on a path of indifference or outright rejection of the kingdom.

Now the Kingdom of God is not some abstraction, or some golf course, or playground in the sky. The Kingdom of God is the full realization of God’s plan and will. It includes Kingdom values like justice, love of the poor, mercy, kindness, chastity, love of God and neighbor, the praise of God, rejoicing in the truth of God’s word, and so forth. It is clear that many (to quote Jesus) live in opposition or indifference to these values. Only a few, (to quote Jesus) come to appreciate and are willing to receive these into their life wholeheartedly.

Yes, this is a hard saying of Jesus. Many are on the path to destruction, only a few in the road to salvation. The Lord is telling us the truth, not to panic us, but to sober us into earnestly desiring our own salvation and seeking it from God with devotion. It is also to make us sober and urgent about the condition of others, to stop making light of sin and indifference and to work hard to evangelized and call sinners to repentance.

We need to realize that our tendency and that of others is to turn away from God. There is a great drama to our lives and we are either on one road or the other. No third way is given. Not a popular teaching to be sure. It offends modern notions. But it is true because Jesus says it to us in love.

And old song says: Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last.

Photo Credit © Copyright Bryan Pready and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

God Works Wonders With Wood – A Meditation on the Cross and How God Prefigured It In the Old Testament

As we draw near to Holy Week, and on this Friday when many of us pray the Stations of the Cross, we do well to meditate on the wood of the cross. For it is a fascinating fact that, when saving His people, God often had recourse to wood. Indeed, one of the great themes of the Old Testament and into the New Testament is that “God Works Wonders With Wood.”

Consider with me a number of places in the Scriptures where God uses wood to save:

1.    Ark of Safety– One of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world is the flood. The world had grown so wicked, and sin so multiplied that God concluded he must literally wash it clean. (And you think its bad now!) God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. He was instructed to build an ark of Gopher wood. Now this was not a small project. The Ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards), it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. God then, troubled the waters and the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. Through the wood of the ark God saved Noah and his family from the flood waters.  (cf Gen 6-9) An old Latin Hymn says, Arbor una nobilis (One and only noble tree)! By this wood, God saved his people.

2. Victory at the Red Sea– Pharaoh had finally relented and the Jewish People were leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. But fickle Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and pursues them. With the Red Sea before them and Pharaoh behind them the people were struck with fear. Yet, God would win through for them. How?! God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters with these words: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two… So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:16, 21). And God brought them through those troubled waters, and they went out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? Wood works wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters bring forth freedom: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

3. Water in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. But notice again how God uses wood to bring forth saving water: And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet! (Ex 15:23) So once again, God saves through wood and brings forth water. The wood of the tree made sweet the water: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

4. Saving Stream –  But yet again, as they journeyed further, more thirst. And once again God used wood to save them: God said to Moses: Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, …Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink. (Ex 17:5-6). With God’s power the wood works wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert. Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

5. Down by the Riverside – After forty years of wandering in the desert the Israelites are finally ready to enter the promised land. But the Jordan is in flood stage, impossible to cross! But once again God had a plan and it involved wood. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the Ark of  the Covenant on their shoulders and wade in the water. Now the Ark was a box made of Acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tables of the Law, the staff of Aaron and a ciborium of the manna. The also knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, even as in our tabernacles today. And when those who bore that wooden Ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests touched the water the waters, those waters rose up in a heap far off, and the  people passed over opposite Jericho (cf Joshua 3:15) So again, with God,  wood works wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted bringing the blessing of the promised land. Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

Now all of these prefigure the noblest tree of all: the Cross of our Lord. For as we have amply seen, God works wonders with wood.

It is said that Jesus was a carpenter. Actually the Greek calls him a teckton (builder). But surely carpentry was among his skills. But more truly he was the greatest carpenter of all, not merely for any table or chair he built, but for the salvation he won us through the wood of his cross: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

Jesus, master carpenter among all master carpenters!  Wood alone cannot save, but God works wonders with wood, and by his power, and his grace he wills to use wood to save us: Wood Works Wonders!

Please consider these beautiful lines from the 6th Century Hymn Crux Fidelis:

FAITHFUL Cross!
above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!

Lofty tree, bend down thy branches,
to embrace thy sacred load;
oh, relax the native tension
of that all too rigid wood;
gently, gently bear the members
of thy dying King and God.

Tree, which solely wast found worthy
the world’s Victim to sustain.
harbor from the raging tempest!
ark, that saved the world again!
Tree, with sacred blood anointed
of the Lamb for sinners slain
.

The full hymn by Venantius Fortunatus is here: PANGE LINGUA – CRUX FIDELIS

Never forget what your Master Carpenter, Jesus has done for you.

Here is a sung version of the hymn Crux Fidelis:

Sign Me "Off" For the Christian Jubilee: On the Disturbing trend of "De-Baptisms" in Europe

There’s an old song that says, Sign me up for the Christian Jubilee! Write my name on the roll!….I want to be ready when Jesus comes!  But, tragically there are some in Europe who are formally renouncing their faith through a process they call “de-baptism.” In effect they write to the parish where they were baptized and asked that their name be blotted out from the book of life, also known as the Baptismal Register. Of course the Catholic Church does not remove the names, but does make a notation that they have formally renounced the Christian faith, that they have renounced their baptism.

The video below depicts such “de-baptisms.” A young Belgian, named Damien,  is interviewed, and shown holding a document he has signed entitled Acte D’Apostasie A qui de droit. (Act of Renunciation (Apostasy) from the faith). You don’t have to know a lot of French to see the word “Apostasy” in the title. I had an opening and so offered Mass today for this man, for his return to the faith. I hope you’ll pray too for him and the over 1000 Belgians who have renounced their faith this past year.

Apostasy Association? There is actually an organization that exists to encourage and facilitate such renunciations. The head of this organization says many have renounced their faith due to anger over the sex-abuse scandal, though he admits there are other reasons too.

Red Herring – I do not know the particulars in Damien’s case so I cannot assess his personal motives. However, generally speaking, the abuse excuse, serious though the scandal was, is largely a red herring. People don’t usually leave the Church due to the Church’s sin, but rather, due to their own sins. People who leave (as distinct from those who drift away) are usually at odds with one or more of the moral teachings of the Church. And they are usually at odds with such teachings because they are breaking one or more of those moral precepts. They want to live as they please, and so they leave. In pointing to sin in the Church (real though it is) they get to tell themselves they are doing a noble, even conscientious thing. But in the end it is more usually a baser motive rooted in their own sin.

I’ve been re-reading Archbishops Sheen’s book Three to Get Married. In it he writes:

Every rationalization is farfetchedand never discloses the real reason. He who breaks the Divine Law and finds himself outside of Christ’s Mystical Body in a second marriage will often justify himself by saying: “I could not accept the doctrine of transubstantiation.” What he means is that he can no longer accept the Sixth Commandment…..What is important is not what people say, but why they say it. Too many assume that the reason people do not come to God is because they are ignorant; it is more generally true that the reason people do not come to God is because of their behavior. Our Lord said: “Rejection lies in this, that when the light came into the world men preferred darkness to light; preferred it, because their doings were evil. Anyone who acts shamefully hates the light” (John 8:19, 20). It is not always doubt that has to be overcome, but evil habits. (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition Loc. 149-58).

In Damien’s case the specific reason is said by the interviewer to be anger over sex abuse. But Damien himself is less clear. He states, in effect, he doesn’t agree with what the Church is doing. It is not so clear that the abuse scandal is what he means, since this is not something the Church is “doing” but rather something she did not do. He more likely means he disagrees with some of her moral teachings. He also claims he never chose to join the Church anyway, since it was his parents who had him baptized.

Self-congratulatory apostasy?  – In the end he calls himself a “conscientious citizen” for getting de-baptized. Sadly, there is another word that more aptly describes what he has done and it is right at the top of his own letter: “Apostasie.” One can only hope his ignorance is so great that he does not really comprehend what he has done and will not face the full effects of his ill-informed choice.

Bad Idea! – But for the record, asking to have your name taken “off the roll” is a VERY BAD idea. Scripture could not be clearer;

  1. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books…..If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15).
  2. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches!  (Rev 3:4-6)

Someone may object  that a baptismal register is not the book mentioned, and that the image of “the book of life”  cannot be mechanistically reduced to inkblots on the page of some earthly book, etc. True enough. But the problem is not the earthly book, but what the earthly book indicates. It indicates baptism, not just membership. And to renounce baptism is to renounce faith in Christ Jesus. Thus, rejecting saving faith in Jesus Christ DOES affect the true and heavenly book. The earthly book is but a copy but it does point to the heavenly one and it is a very bad idea to go on record renouncing your faith, and asking that your name be “blotted out.” In Scripture Jesus says that the greatest gift is to have our names written in heaven: However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20).

And perhaps the scariest thing about all this is that Scripture also indicates very clearly that Jesus will ultimately abide by the decision of those who reject him and ratify it:

  1. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38)
  2. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:33)
  3. If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us, if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself. (2 Tim 2:12-13)

So please pray for this young man, Damien, and others like him. Do not simply presume invincible ignorance on his part. We often rashly presume that adults “don’t know any better.” Well, don’t presume,  pray for him. I offered mass for him today and others like him. Perhaps you might offer the fruits of holy Mass as well?

Pray, this is very serious. It is bad enough to drift away from the faith, but to formally renounce ones baptism is to really ramp things up to a mega-serious level. Pray, pray, pray.

On Being Sober and Serious in Seeking Salvation

Today’s Gospel is a sobering summons to be serious about our spiritual life.  Now it is a sad fact today that many, if not most people are not serious about their spiritual life. They do not pray, they do not read scripture, do not attend Mass or go to confession. They are playing around and goofing off like life were some big joke. They are often locked in serious and unrepented sin and will not be ready when judgment day comes. It is just a fact.

Perhaps you think I am overly pessimistic but I would argue that I am on strong biblical grounds. In today’s Gospel the Lord dispatches one of the most common errors of today. The error held is that most people are going to heaven. The Lord rather directly refutes this and summons us to be sober and serious in seeking salvation. Let’s look at the readings for today in three stages.

1. The Danger Described. – Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough (Luke 13:22-23). Elsewhere Jesus elaborated on this more:   Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mat 7:13-15).  So, when asked if those to be saved are many or few the Lord answers, “Few” and goes on to describe that “many” will be unable to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but are on the wide and easy road that leads to destruction – see photo above right!

This of course flies in the face of what most people think today.  We have to be sober about this and realize that many live lives that show little interest in God or the Kingdom of God. At some point this decision becomes final and God accepts their disinterest as their final choice. Beware! To persist in worldliness and to be self absorbed increasingly becomes our final disposition.

Now it is true that every says they want to go to heaven. But it is usually a heaven that they have invented. But the real heaven is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God has values that many people today do not want. It is a place where justice, mercy, generosity and chastity are celebrated. Now it is clear today that many today are not interested in forgiving those who have hurt them. They do not want to love their enemy. They surely do not want to live chastely. The concept of justice annoys them and usually makes them suspicious that someone is after their money. Generosity too annoys them for they would rather not part with a dime. But this is what the Kingdom of God is all about and what is celebrated in heaven.

Further, heaven is described in the Book of Revelation (4,5,8) as  like a liturgy where God is at the center and is praised.  Hymns are sung, a scroll containing the meaning of all things (Scripture) is read  and the Lamb is on a throne-like altar. There are candles incense, prostrations, standing and all the things of the Mass. Now many people today say by their absence from Mass that none of this interests them. OK fine, God will not force it on any of them. Neither will he force them to accept the values of the Kingdom of God. But THIS is what heaven is about, the fullness of the Kingdom.

Now as time goes on, a person grows hardened in their aversion to the Kingdom of God, to heaven. Eventually their aversion becomes forever fixed. So on Judgment Day they are not able to enter heaven and frankly would not be happy there anyway. So here is the danger: walking the wide and worldly road that hardens the heart to God and the things of God so that heaven is “not able” to be tolerated. Hell is not God’s fault, it is the preference of damned who have hardened their hearts to God and the realities of the true (not the fanciful) heaven.

2. The Divine Desire. Now God does not want hell for anyone. He does not rejoice in the decision of the damned but he does respect it. God is clear he wants to save everyone: As surely as I live, says the LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11-12)  Thus in today’s First Reading there is described how God widens the call of salvation to the whole world: I come to gather nations of every language;  they shall come and see my glory. …that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. …Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD. (Is 66:18-21) Yes indeed, the Lord wants to bring people from every nation and race to his kingdom. The Lord wants to save us all. So the problem of Hell is not about God and what He wants, it is about us and what we want. God will  ultimately respect our final choice. I have written more on this here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/

3. The Delivering Discipline  This then leads to a manner in which we can be sober and serious in seeking salvation. It is described in the 2nd reading today: My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord  or lose heart when reproved by him;  for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;  he scourges every son he acknowledges.”  Endure your trials as “discipline”;  God treats you as sons.  For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline?  At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,  yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (Heb 12:5-7). We have a clear call from the Lord to submit our lives to his discipline and training. Notice how closely related the discipline is to discipleship. The Lord has a discipline for us that makes us true disciples.

Our discipline includes daily prayer, daily scripture, daily repentance, frequent confession, Mass every Sunday. We are to grow in the training of the Lord which comes from the study of our faith and the reception of the Sacraments. As we do this we grow in desire for the things of God and heaven. We come to share the kingdom values and are less worldly. More and more we start to love who and what God loves, we start to have His priorities, are transformed by the renewal of our minds. This is what God’s discipline, what his teaching, grace and mercy do for us.

So, in the end, God is not our enemy, he is our Savior and the only one who can get us ready for judgment day. But we have to be sober and serious in seeking salvation. All the playing around and goofing off, the presumption and worldliness has to end. The Letter to the Hebrews from today’s second reading has three last things to tell us:

  1. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees – In other words lift up your hands in prayer and have strong knees that are accustomed  to kneeling in prayer.
  2. Make straight paths for your feet – get off that wide road that leads to destruction and get on the narrow path that leads to God. The Next time some one calls you narrow minded thank them and invite them to join you!
  3. that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed – Sin makes us lame, weak and tired of doing good. But get used to walking the straight and narrow path that is uphill to heaven and watch your strength grow, and your weak knees be healed.

 Here’s an excerpt from a Funeral Sermon I posted some time ago that seems apt for today’s theme:

What is the Wrath of God?

Not long ago I saw a bottle of hot sauce with the creative name “Wrath of God!” Now that’s gotta be some hot sauce! But what is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in the scriptures and it is a concept with which we have to be careful. On the one hand we cannot simply dismiss the concept as contradictory to the fact that God is love. But neither can we fail to see God’s wrath apart from his love.

As a followup from yesterday’s blog it seems worthwhile to consider some aspects of the very complicated and reality of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the whole topic in the post but the comments stay open as always for your additions and subtractions. What are some ways that we can explain and understand the wrath of God? Let me propose a few.

The wrath of God is not merely an Old Testament Concept. In fact we find it mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. For example consider the following:

  1. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him. (John 3:36)
  2. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18)
  3. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Rom 12:19)
  4. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things [i.e. sexual immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Eph 5:6)
  5. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:9)
  6. The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. (Rev 14:19)

And there are at least a dozen other texts from the New Testament that could be referenced but allow these to suffice. So it is clear that the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept that the New Testament has dispensed with. And notice too that the wrath of God is not something simply for the end of the world. It is also spoken of in some of the texts above and others not listed as something already operative in certain people.

So what is God’s wrath? And how can we reconcile it with his love?  Consider some of the images, explanations of God’s wrath. None of them all alone explain it but together a picture and understanding may emerge.

  1. Image: God’s wrath is his passion to set things right. We see this image of God’s wrath right at the beginning in Genesis when God cursed Satan and uttered the protoevangelium (the first good news): I will make you and the woman enemies….one of her seed will crush your head while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). God is clearly angered at what sin has done to Adam and Eve and he continues to have anger whenever he beholds sin and injustice. He has a passion for our holiness. He wants what is best for us. He is angered by what hinders us in this regard. Surely all sins provoke his wrath but there are five sins that especially cry out to heaven: Wilful murder – [Gen. 4:10]; The sin of the Sodomites, [Gen. 18:20; 19:13]; The cry of the people oppressed, [Ex. 3:7-10]; The cry of the foreigner, the widow and the orphan, [Ex. 20:20-22]; Injustice to the wage earner. [Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4] (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1867). In terms of all sin and injustice and anything that afflicts or hinders the possibility of salvation,  God has a wrathful indignation and a passion to set things right. This is part of his love for us. His wrath may be manifest through punishments, disturbances of our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience some or all the consequences of our sin and injustice.
  2. Clarification: God’s wrath is not like our anger. In saying that God is angry we ought to be careful to understand that however God experiences anger or any passion, it is not tainted by sin. God is not angry like we are angry. When we get angry we often experience an out of control quality, our temper flares and we often say and do things that are either sinful or at least excessive. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums and to fly off the handle, to admix anger with an unreasonable lashing out. The way God does experience anger is not something we can fully understand but is it surely a sovereign and serene act of his will, not an out of control emotion.
  3. Clarification: God is not moody. It does not pertain to God to have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture seems clear enough when it indicates that God does not Change. Consider this from the Book of James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning. Hence to speak of God’s wrath does not mean that he has suddenly had enough or that his temper has flared, or that his mood has soured. God IS. He does not change. As the text says, he is not variable. And this leads us to the next point.
  4. Image: Given what we have said,  the primary location of God’s wrath is not in God,  it is in us. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of God’s wrath is this: God’s wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the Holiness of God. Sin and God’s holiness just don’t mix. They can’t keep company. Think of fire and water. They do not mix. They cannot coexist in the same spot. Bring them together and you you can hear the conflict. Think of water spilled on a hot stove and hear the sizzle and popping and the steam as the water flees away. If, on the other hand there is a lot of water the fire is overwhelmed and extinguished . But the point is that they cannot coexist. They will conflict and one will win. This is wrath, the complete incompatibility of two things. It is this way between sin and God’s utter holiness. We must be purified before we can enter the presence of God otherwise we could never tolerate his glory. We would wail and grind our teeth and turn away in horror. The wrath is the conflict between our sin and God’s holiness. God cannot and will not change so we must be changed. Otherwise we experience wrath. But notice the experience is in us primarily and not God. God does not change, he is holy, serene, he is love. If we experience his wrath it is on account of us, not him. Consider the next example.
  5. Image: It is we who change, not God and this causes wrath to be experienced or not –Consider an example. On the ceiling of my bedroom is a light with a 100 watt light bulb. At night before bed I delight in the light. I am accustomed to it. But then at bed time I put out the light and sleep. When I awake it is still dark (at least in the winter). Hence I put the light on. But Ugh! Grrr! Now the light is bright and I curse it! Now mind you, the light has not changed one bit. It is still the same 100 watt bulb it was hours earlier. The light is just the same, it is I who have changed. But do you know what I do? I blame the light and say, “The light is harsh!” But the light is not harsh, it is just the same as when I was happy with it. Now that I have changed I experience its wrath but the wrath is really in me. So also consider the experience of the ancient family of man with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the evening when the dew collected on the grass (cf Gen 3:8).  They had warm friendship with him and did not fear his presence. After sin, they hide. Had God changed? He had not, they had and they now experience him very differently. Fast forward to another Theophany. God has come to Mt Sinai and as he descends the people are terrified for there are peals of thunder, lightning, clouds and the loud blast of a trumpet. The people told Moses “You speak to us, but let not God speak, else we will die!” (Ex 20:19) God too warned Moses that the people could not get close  lest his wrath be vented upon them (Ex 19:20-25). Now again, had God changed? He had not. He was the same God who walked with them in the cool of the evening in a most intimate way. It was we who had changed. We had lost the holiness without which no one can see the Lord (Heb 12:14). The same God, unchanged though he was, now seemed to us frightening and wrathful.
  6. What then shall we do? If we can allow the image of fire to remain before us we may well find a hopeful sign in God’s providence. Since God is a holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:26; Is 33:14) how can we possibly come into his presence? How can we avoid the wrath that would destroy us? Well, what is the only thing that survives in the presence of fire? Fire is the only thing that survives! So it looks like we’d better become fire if we want to see God. And thus it was that God sent tongues of fire upon the Apostles and us at our confirmation. God wants to set you and me on fire with the Holy Spirit and in holiness. God wants to bring us up to the temperature of glory so that we can stand in his presence: See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.  But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Mal 3:1-4). And indeed Jesus has now come:   For you have  turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. 1 Thess 1:10-11)

So there is a wrath of God. As I have tried to show it is more in us than in God. But I will not say to you that there is NO wrath IN  God. Scripture seems clear to indicate that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how God experiences it  is mysterious to us. We can say to some extent what it is not (as we did above) but we cannot really say what it is exactly. But far more rich is the meditation that the wrath of God is essentially in us. It is OUR experience of the incompatibility of sin before God. We must be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and purified. Most of us will need purification in purgatory too. But if we let the Lord work his saving work we are saved from the wrath for we are made holy and set on fire with God’s love. And fire never fears the presence of fire. God is Love but he will not change. So it is that Love must change us.

One of the greatest cinematic depictions of the Wrath of God occurred in the move the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Nazi’s sinfully think they can open the Ark and endure the presence of God. What they get is wrath for sin cannot endure the reality of God’s presence. “Enjoy” this clip: