19th Sunday after Pentecost: “Be angry but do not sin”

For the 19th Sunday after Pentecost in the Vetus Ordo we venture into a Lesson from the letter of St. Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians (4:23-28).

[Brethren]: Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need.

The liturgical commentator Pius Parsch says in his Church’s Year of Grace, “This Sunday marks the beginning of a series of three featuring the virtue of Christian hope.”   Card. Schuster says that this Sunday was known to our ancient forebears as the 4th after the feast of St. Cyprian and that it had a station church at Sts. Cosmas and Damian on the Forum.  In fact, the Introit and Collect seem to pick up on the idea of the stational physician saints in the petition for harmony of body and mind.

Some context.  Paul wrote this Letter to a Christian community that seems to have been predominately comprised of Gentiles, rather than of Jews who converted.   As chapter 4 begins, Paul wrote: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (v. 17).   Paul isn’t all that interested in the ethnic backgrounds of his audience.  He is addressing their morals.  Since these Gentiles, and the Jews there, have embraced the Gospel, they all must live according to the Gospel.   This is their identity now.  Moreover, Christian faith has implications for morals.  Whatever they were before, and what they were doing before, they must be new creations now with a new way of behaving.

The phrase in the Epistle about “put on the new man” connects well with the image in the Gospel of the wedding garment, foreshadowing the white baptismal robe that symbolizing our rebirth in the waters of Baptism.   We need to keep this garment clean, our souls in the state of grace.   This is a serious obligation for every Christian, perhaps even the most serious, for our eternal salvation depends on it.

A minor, or maybe not so minor, implication is that when on Sunday we go to church, we should wear our “Sunday best”.  This doesn’t mean top hat and tails every Sunday.  It does mean decent and decorous.  This shows respect to the place, which is a sacred place, and to the moment, which is for Mass, and to your neighbor as well.  You see that, in the Epistle reading, “putting on” and love of neighbor are strictly related.

Let’s look into the issue of the “old man” and “new man”.

First, I’ll point out that when the server at Mass puts on his cassock and surplice, for the surplice he traditionally says a prayer that refers to this imagery:

Indúe me, Dómine, novum hóminem, qui secúndum Deum creátus est in justítia et sanctitáte veritátis. Amen.

Invest me, O Lord, as a new man, who was created by God in justice and the holiness of truth.  Amen.

Again, the white garment that is the server’s surplice, over the cassock, is a variant of the alb, the white robe the priest puts on over his cassock before vesting in the proper vestments.  The alb, in turn, is the white baptismal garment which symbolizes the “new man” which we become in baptism.  There are so many reminders of our baptismal character.  Other reminders are, for example, the dressing of First Communicants and brides in white.

Paul is working from a moral point of view.  There are two “men” in us, the “old” and the “new”.  The “old man” is what we inherited from our First Parents, Adam in particular, a carnal self, as it were.  The “new man” is regenerated from the “old man” who dies in the waters of baptism to be regenerated in supernatural grace.   This image is used more than once by Paul.  He wrote along these lines to the Colossians 3, wherein we are prompted to “seek things that are above” because “we have died”.  Hence, we are to treat each other well, and “put on the new nature”, being forgiving and putting on charity.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices 10 and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3:9-10)

Do not lie to each other.  Do not be angry with each other.

There is a lot of lying and anger in the Church right now, isn’t there.  We must do our best not to be lead astray, provoked inordinately.

Because we are both body and soul, we must struggle with the implications of the flesh.  Common sense informs us that the fleshly and the bodily hinder the soul.   To be clear, our bodily senses are the way that our intellect gathers things in to make judgments about and for our will to act on.  However, there are certain impulses which hinder this process.  Our appetites can pull us now here and now there.  They are the cause of our changing our minds, now for this perceived good and now for that perceived good.  This is why angels cannot change their minds: they have no bodies with senses and appetites and concupiscence that pull them here or there.  Being pure spirits without senses, they know things in the very essences of the things known.  No further information being possible, and no appetites, they cannot change their minds.

It is important to understand how angels know things and how they cannot change their minds to understand how we must be careful regarding our senses and our life habits.

The faux-comforting chestnut that when someone dies he becomes “an angel” is false, of course. But it is sort of true, in one way.  When we die and our souls separate from our bodies, our souls no longer have bodily senses and the appetites and concupiscence that comes from the flesh.   This means that, like angels, we cannot change our minds.   This is the foundation of the Church’s constant teaching that, at death, we go to our Particular Judgment and… that’s that.  We cannot change our minds.  We cannot repent such that we can gain the salvation that we had lost during our earthly lives because we died in the state of mortal sin rather than in the state of grace and God’s friendship.

Sometimes you might hear people criticize churchmen and the Church for preaching too much about sexual sins.   I believe that recently a highly visible and highly placed churchman diminished those sins that are “below the belt”.   Wrong.  That’s the sort of thing that can lead to scandal and the loss of souls.  With a superior tone some critics of the Church teachings on sexual morality might even remind us that the sins of the flesh are not as serious as the sins of the spirit, true malice for example.  Never mind that when writing to the Colossians in the aforementioned chapter 3 Paul lists the more spiritual sins with the fleshy sins because they are all part and parcel of the old man we are to put off.  Paul then lists spiritual goods of compassion and meekness and forgiveness, etc., because they are of the new man.

Sure, it is true that the Church does preach a lot about sins of the flesh.  She does so for good reason.  If spiritual sins are more serious, sins of the flesh are far more frequent.   If these are the sins that people tend to commit often and have a hard time shedding, then it makes sense, out of charity, to preach about them often.  After all, what do you call someone who dies in mortal sin because of carnal sins rather than some more serious spiritual sin such as wrath or malice?   You call them “damned for eternity”.  It isn’t complicated.

Next, we should consider Paul’s admonition:

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

This is a reference to Ps 4:5: “Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.”

Terrific advice, that, about not letting anger fester.

Anger is one of those involuntary motions in us that isn’t entirely in our power to avoid.   However, we must keep these motions in check, bridle them, so they don’t turn into something worse.  The Enemy of the soul can use these moments and motions to trick us down a self-destructive path.  When anger stems from our wounded personal feelings rather than from repugnance at something objectively wrong, we are on the slope into serious sin.  Likewise, we must not let anger grow out of proportion in regard to objective harms.

We notice, however, that Paul thinks there is an anger that isn’t sinful. What might this kind of anger be?   Paul could be referring to the sort of anger that is in defense of the honor of God and for the sake of the salvation of our neighbor.  This sort of anger is not just not sinful, it is upright and holy.  We have the example of Our Lord who, finding that the money changers and vendors had blocked up the Temple’s important Courtyard of the Gentiles, became angry and overturned their table (Matt 21).  If Christ could be angry, then there must be a kind of anger that is proper.  Christ didn’t want vengeance on them: He wanted them out of that important Courtyard.  Why?  Because the coming of Gentiles to worship the one true God was a sign that the fulfilment of His mission had arrive, the “day”.   Just anger, therefore, must have a just cause and its expression must be rooted in love of and, at times, the defense of, what is good, true and beautiful.  We can express anger rightly and in the right measure for the sake of correction which is for the good of souls.  We cannot become unhinged and violate the dignity of others through curses and the like.

There are a lot of reasons to be angry today about what’s going on in the Church.  Do not let the sun go down on your anger.  One practice you might adopt to help with anger at certain people who seem bound to destroy the Church is to pray for them.  It is hard to maintain anger or hatred toward someone for whom you are sincerely praying.  We don’t have to like these people, but we do have to love them enough to pray for them.  In doing so, we wear well the new man who was washed clean in the Precious Blood of Christ’s Sacrifice.

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