Question: In the reading at Mass today Jesus says, “Whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him.” Why present God in such mean-spirited terms?
— Name withheld
Answer: The wrath of God does not mean that God is mad or in a bad mood. God is not subject to moods or fits of anger. In God there “is no variableness or shadow of change” (Jm 1:17).
The wrath of God says more about us than God. It describes the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. Without the transformation effected by grace, we cannot endure the presence of God, which, though glorious, is too much for us to take unless God purifies and prepares us by grace.
Perhaps a couple of analogies will help.
As we know, fire and water do not mix. There is a conflict between them, and we can hear that conflict in the sizzle when water is spilled on a hot stovetop. There is a conflict (or “wrath”) between the two substances. They cannot be in the same place at the same time. If fire is allowed to represent God, then you and I are going to have to become fire to endure his holy presence. God must bring us up to the temperature of glory for us to endure and enjoy the “weather” of heaven. No wonder that God sent his Holy Spirit like tongues of fire at Pentecost.
If we are not transformed by the Lord’s grace, then the presence of God will seem harsh and wrathful, not glorious and beautiful. But the problem or “wrath” is in us, not God.
And this leads to a second analogy. In our homes, we are happy to have lights shining brightly in the evening hours. Upon waking from sleep in the dark morning hours however, if someone turns on the lights, we may protest: “The light is harsh!” But the light is not harsh, it is the same light we enjoyed earlier. The light has not changed, we have. And thus the wrath of God is more in us than in God. It is our experience of him, not who God actually is in himself.
Since it is admittedly complex, the concept of the wrath of God requires a more careful study than merely reading it in a literalist way.
40 days after Easter
Question: During the 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, did Jesus stay consistently with the disciples the whole time? Or did he appear and disappear?
— Marty Spaulding, San Diego, California
Answer: It seems he did not abide consistently with them as he did before the Resurrection.
Scripture says, “Now a week later his disciples were again inside...” (Jn 20:26). This implies he did not appear to them between those eight days.
It is true that we do not have a precise chronology of the 40 days after Easter. Thus we cannot say definitely how much of that time was spent directly with the disciples. But it seems clear it was not every day. We may wonder why this is so.
St. Thomas Aquinas says it was to better manifest his glory that he did not abide with them simply and consistently in the familiar way he had done before. Rather, he, by his own authority, appeared and disappeared at will. As such, he helped the disciples better grasp that he is Lord.
It is also likely he was helping accustom them to the fact that, after the Ascension, they would no longer see him as before, but instead they would encounter him mystically in the sacraments and the liturgy.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.