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Wrath and Mercy

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There’s something personal and unforgettable in the anger of someone who passionately protects the good. Good wrath is profoundly instructive. We hope in God’s mercy, yet we are mindful of His justice, which is not presented to us as dispassionate correction.

My wife and I had a mentor, a wise man and forceful leader, who said a number of memorable things, but one of them particularly stuck with us: “Never strike a child except in anger,” he would say. These days, of course, striking a child at all is considered abuse, so his point might be lost already in the reader’s existential horror. But let me posit a world in which parents, believing that their children’s souls could be formed by associating pain with wrongdoing, would spank or perhaps switch their erring children to teach them, vividly, what they could and could not do. The pious dictum in those days was “Never strike a child in anger.” If a child needed to be punished, the sorrowful mother or father would wait to achieve a dispassionate state of mind before administering the necessary measure of suffering, which would be introduced by a kind of apology, such as, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Contrast what our friend said, ironically to be sure, but with a corrective dose of wisdom against sentimentality: “Never strike a child except in anger.”

What did he mean? Was he giving the green light to the kinds of drunken thrashings and parental brutality that scar the psyche of a child for life? Not at all. What he meant ought to be intuitively obvious: wrongdoing angers us, and anger is the evidence that we feel the injustice. Feeling it is crucial, because we are just or unjust, not in the abstract, but right here, in our full, embodied being. A child has to feel consequences on the way to understanding. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Heb. 12:11) What better way is there to reveal the nature of trespass than a good, full-on demonstration of wrath? Civilization, needless to say, requires restraint of this passion and considerable selectivity about what we allow to arouse it, but it is nevertheless crucial not to separate wrath entirely from the exercise of justice. Otherwise, justice itself feels soulless, pro forma, merely institutional.

There’s something personal and unforgettable in the anger of someone who passionately protects the good. Good wrath is profoundly instructive. It’s very much on display in Cabrini, for example, which I highly recommend. Consider, then, how we might think about “the wrath of God,” a phrase and a concept that we tend to rationalize away. Surely, God is too self-contained and, moreover, too merciful to be wrathful, say, at the contemporary cultural embrace of practices soundly condemned by the whole biblical tradition. Surely, the “anger” of God is an equivocal use of the word. But this Holy Week commemorates the terrible, lightning-hot onset of the Wrath; and remembering this Wrath is crucial or we will not feel the extraordinary relief when it passes over us in that night of terror and falls instead, most terribly, on the Egyptians and their firstborn sons. We cannot feel the mercy of Easter without understanding that the Wrath does indeed fall, not now on Egypt’s firstborn, but on God’s own Son and—if we believe in Him—not on us, please God, not on us.

Early in Lent, our family started saying a scriptural rosary distributed by the Knights of Columbus, and the Sorrowful Mysteries were particularly rooted in passages from the prophets implying that Jesus was suffering God’s full, unmitigated wrath against sinful man. Wrath like this reminds us of the classical epics in which the mēnis of Achilles and the ira of Juno both stem from insults to their greatness. Who should have more reason for this epic wrath than Jesus, who suffers the unrecognition by His chosen people of the actual presence of God in the person of Christ? But here, paradoxically, the wrath of the Father against those who offend Him is directed onto the innocent Son. It is hard to get our minds around it: Christ Himself as man suffers the full wrath for the insult being done to God—that is, to Christ Himself. We can hardly conceive of this self-substitution without imagining that the Father somehow softens his wrath toward the Son. Not so. The mercy of our being passed over lies in the fullness of the Father’s refusal to mitigate His wrath and the Son’s corresponding human refusal to relinquish the cup of suffering.

I am reminded of a poem that our students at Wyoming Catholic College do not memorize but might consider for Holy Week, “Carrion Comfort.” One of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Terrible Sonnets,” it focuses on the speaker’s refusal to despair despite the intensity of his misery. It might be the voice of Christ himself addressing the Father:

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Notice in particular the “wring-world right foot” that “rocks” on the speaker, as though he were a bit of live coal being ground out by someone’s shoe.

What would it be to face the wrath of God, whom St. Paul describes as “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29)? That’s a question that no one wants to have to answer, the question that the Passion and death of Christ poses to each of us, nevertheless, in our self-justifying offenses and insults, our unrecognition of Presence, our enlightened complacency. We hope in God’s mercy, yet we mark the lintels with blood more earnestly the more we are mindful of His justice, which is not presented to us as dispassionate correction. Let us not minimize the good of wrath.

Republished with gracious permission from “Keeping Our Bearings,” a weekly column of Wyoming Catholic College.

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The featured image is “The Great Day of His Wrath” (c. 1851) by John Martin, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Dr. Glenn C. Arbery served as President (2016-2023) of Wyoming Catholic College, where he previously served as Dean and Associate Professor of Humanities. He has taught at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, the University of Dallas, and at Assumption College where he was d’Alzon Professor of Liberal Arts. He is the author of Why Literature Matters (2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004), and The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010).

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