We are looking at the Epistle readings for the Vetus Ordo on Sundays. This week we continue what we prayed last week. I say, “what we prayed,” because the readings themselves are part of a sacrificial offering, the Word being raised to the Father, as the Word made flesh was raised on the Cross, as incense, bread, wine and hearts go up… sursum. Because Mass is sacrificial and not primarily didactic, it is proper for the priest ritually to read the Scripture at Mass, even if it is sung in Latin by other sacred ministers or perhaps read by lay people in the vernacular. This is something lost in the Novus Ordo, which is one of the changes to the Roman Rite that lends to it, along with the addition of a reading, the feel of a didactic moment.
As mentioned last week and above, today’s Epistle, written by Paul in Corinth in the 50s AD, a cutting from Romans 12, forms with last week’s Epistle a whole block: vv. 9-16a, 16b-21. In this section of the letter, Paul is telling the Romans what the marks are of Christian life. They are to be harmonious, charitable, and patient in suffering. They are asked by Paul to bless rather than curse their persecutors. The reading is short:
Brethren: never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (RSV)
Let’s linger over that image: “heap burning coals upon his head.” This seems to be a fairly gruesome suggestion.
Does it not sound as if the Apostle is recommending to be good to those with whom we are not getting along precisely so that we can hurt them even more? Isn’t that to make a deeply Christian act and work of mercy into something profoundly antithetical to Christ? Isn’t it tantamount to wishing upon our persecutors eternal fire of punishment?
While that phrase could be interpreted in a sinister way, we can turn to Scripture itself for some help. Firstly, the image itself comes from Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274) commenting on this passage reminds us that in the amazing and difficult Song of Songs 8:6-7 about love, charity, that “its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” The Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) remarks in De doctrina christiana 3,16, 24:
Do not doubt, then, that the expression is figurative; and, while it is possible to interpret it in two ways, one pointing to the doing of an injury, the other to a display of superiority, let charity on the contrary call you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man’s pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress. In the same way, when our Lord says, “He who loveth his life shall lose it,” we are not to think that He forbids the prudence with which it is a man’s duty to care for his life, but that He says in a figurative sense, “Let him lose his life”—that is, let him destroy and lose that perverted and unnatural use which he now makes of his life, and through which his desires are fixed on temporal things so that he gives no heed to eternal.
The idea is that by heaping charity upon your wrongdoer, you are working in cooperation with grace to melt a stone-cold heart.
Frozen hearts do not beat. They must be thawed, healed of their coldness. In the Gospel reading today, from Matthew 8:1-13, we have the powerful meeting of Christ with the Centurion whose servant was dying, whence comes our three-fold, “Domine, non sum dignus…” before Communion. In the beginning of the reading, the Lord heals a leper who came before Him. Then he heals the servant from a distance. Close or distant, the Lord is a healer. He is, as Augustine often referred to Him as Christus Medicus, the physician of the soul.
In terms of ancient medicine, and also in newer techniques, sometimes we burn to heal and we sear to save. We cauterize. A red-hot needle can pierce a fingernail that has been slammed with a hammer to relieve the bloody pressure. Heat is applied to those who have hypothermia. In each case the application of the heat can be painful, but the relief and healing begin after the shock.
When we treat with charity those who do us wrong, we apply the heat of Christ’s cauterizing, pierced and piercing, warming furnace Heart, to closed and stony ice hearts. This is the essence of charity: to act even at cost to oneself for the sake of the true good of the other.
As individuals we encounter those who have or would do us harm, to one degree or another, perhaps physical, perhaps, moral, social or emotional. We have to make choices about the best thing not only for our own circumstances as, for example, when their mistreatments would have repercussions for, say, our charges, such as wife and children, a priest for his parishioners. Even then, we thread the needle also by considering the best act in charity for that wrongdoer. Why? The Lord has given us numerous lines, such as, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
We also encounter those who persecute us as a group, for example, … well, they abound. How shall we look upon them and remain clean of their malice? We must pray for them and offer reparation to God for their actions.
What sort of “love” do you think the Lord requires from us in the face of mistreatment? He’s saying that when people harm you, be superficial and channel your inner Richard III. Smile at those who harm you all the while imagining and harboring grim thoughts of vengeance, right?
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions. (cf. Henry VI, Part III, III, ii, 1671ff.)
What does it avail us in the end to harbor ill will or, worse, plot revenge? After all, the Lord himself says, “Vengeance is yours!” Oops. No. Wait. God says, “Vengeance is MINE.” If it is His, then it isn’t ours.
Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).