Question: I hear a lot about the love of God, but then I also see a lot in the Bible about his wrath and anger. I don’t know which view of God to believe in.
— James Westenholmer, Seattle
Answer: The biblical concept of the wrath of God must be understood with a good degree of sophistication. It does not simply mean that God is mad. We do not have a God who is moody, grouchy or prone to fits of temper.
God’s anger — or wrath — must be understood in the light of his love. From this perspective, one definition of God’s wrath is his decisive work to set things right. God, out of love for us, must level the mountains of our pride and fill in the valleys of our despair and neglect.
In his bold action, it may at times seem to us that he is angry, but it is more true to say that he loves us, as well as truth and justice, and is seeking for our benefit to establish them more firmly.
In another sense, it is proper to say that the wrath of God is an experience that is more in us than in God. From this perspective, the wrath of God is our experience of the complete incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. That which is unholy simply cannot endure the presence of God, who is utterly holy. It is like wax before fire.
Consider, too, the image of fire and water. They do not mix or coexist in the same spot. One hears the conflict between them as a kind of sizzling and popping. One element will win; the other must depart. Unrepentant sinners before God also experience this conflict within themselves. Though they may attribute the problem to God, calling him wrathful, the problem is really in us, not in God.
Think of how at night we will often have lights on in our room. But then the lights are put out and we sleep. Early the next morning the lights are put back on, but now the light seems obnoxious. Yet the light has not changed at all, it is the same 100-watt light bulb it was the night before. It is we who change. But notice how we say the light is “harsh.”
It is like this with God, who does not change, of whom the book of James says there is no variableness or shadow of turning (Jas 1:17).
Therefore, as you can see, wrath is a notion that must be balanced with other truths about God: that he is love and that he does not change. Neither is he given to irritableness or arbitrary outbursts of anger.
Priest faces altar
Question: Our young priest faces the altar rather than the people for Mass. Is this allowed?
— Name withheld, South Carolina
Answer: Technically, yes, and there are good liturgical and theological roots for the practice. Pastorally, however, as your puzzlement shows, a lot of teaching is necessary to explain the practice. Further, one might also argue that an individual priest ought not make a large change like this at a Sunday Mass without consulting his bishop.
Careful teaching and organic change is the better way to reintroduce the ancient, and many would say correct, stance for the Eucharistic prayer.
This can help avoid misunderstandings and backlash, as well as local and regional divisions that become a countersign of the charity and unity that should pervade the sacred 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 Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.