Monday, December 06, 2010

Advent wrath [sic]

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
~Matthew 3:7-10, from the Gospel reading for 2nd Sunday of Advent
Who are we to "flee from the wrath to come"? The Forerunner speaks of God's wrath not as something we're saved from, but as the very thing that will save those who repent. The Eastern church is right about this. The West views God's wrath mostly as vindictive, retributive punishment which we are saved FROM by some forensic transaction in which Christ's blood is merely the payment. This is why Catholics have so few concrete teachings or examples of a LIFE of repentance since we think of repentance as a transaction for the confession booth. Repentance as transaction renders John's call into little more than a pro forma hat tip or a weapon to be used on the Other (Jews, Muslims, non-believers, non-Catholics, everyone but ourselves). As Protestant and Catholic, I always felt repentance seemed superfluous to those who are already saved or absolved; if we're saved from divine wrath, what do we need to repent for?

But to the Eastern church, God's wrath is simply the hard edge of God's light, but it is not modeled after human, pagan wrath. God's wrath exposes, chastens, purifies, cleanses, cauterizes, heals, emancipates, even deifies. Like all of God's energies and operations, God's wrath is Good because it is of God who loves mankind, as the Eastern church prays over and over again. No epistemological voluntarism here: God's wrath is not good just because God says so, as if divine cruelty and bloodthirst are good by arbitrary definition. It's good because it's not cruel or bloodthirsty because God is not cruel or bloodthirsty. The only thing that makes divine wrath so hard and terrifying to us is sin in us. The West has made God's wrath into the problem we must solve or be saved from, when in actuality His wrath is the solution. Sin as that which alienates us from the divine life in us experiences God as wrath. So wrath is the enemy of sin. So if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then divine wrath is my friend.

Divine wrath calls us to repentance because that's the natural human response to it. Flight from divine wrath is flight from God right back into the arms of sin. A life of repentance unites us with the good wrath of God, separates us from the life of sin, liberates us from slavery to our passions, not to remove a juridical sentence hanging over us, but to prepare us for deification, to restore the image and likeness of God in us, to make us men in full again. To be Christian is to incline one's heart to the wrath of God like leaves incline towards the sun. How much more are we to anticipate the coming of the Sun of Righteousness? This is why ascesis is necessary in Advent. The West has lost all sense of ascetic preparation and anticipation for the Nativity because the modern Church has watered down John's call to repentance into a nice story befitting pastel-colored candle wreaths, sentimental dioramas, and cute kids dressing up as Joseph and Mary like it's Halloween.