Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Easter 2019

 

Dearly Beloved,


Today we mark the fourth Sunday after Easter. The Church, both at Mass and at Matins, begins to read the
letter of St. James. James was a cousin of our Lord, chosen to be an Apostle, and the first bishop of Jerusalem,
martyred at the age of 96 in the city.


The letter of James is short yet filled with much practical wisdom, and a letter worth reading with some
frequency. The selection for today is taken from the first chapter and has the memorable verses, “Let everyone
be quick to listen but slow to speak and slow to anger…for the anger of man does not work the justice of God.”
St. James paired speech and anger together because when we are angry, we often say too much, and vice versa,
when we speak too much, we often get into arguments and are offended by other people’s interjections into our
wise expostulations. Thus: too much speech and too much anger often go hand in hand.


Both speech and anger are ambivalent parts of human life, since they are good in themselves but so often used
to excess. Speech communicates truth, and anger addresses injustice; both are good and necessary human
actions. And it is also the case that if neglect speech or anger, we can be guilty of sin, for there are times when
it is sinful to remain silent or to not get angry. Thus: to be virtuous and grow in holiness, we must know how to
rightly use both speech and anger. Since a Sunday homily does not give sufficient time to cover both, and lest I
say too much and anger you by my wordiness, I will focus on anger.


Anger is first of all an emotion, a bodily response to a real or perceived evil which we cannot avoid. Unlike
other emotions, however, anger is closely tied to reason because anger arises when we judge someone’s words
or actions as offensive toward our person. Thus: there are times when reason dictates that we be angry—for
example, when a child insults a parent, the proper response is anger. The child’s action disrupts the natural
order and anger seeks to address the injustice. Anger also applies to offenses not only against ourselves, but
also against those with whom we are associated so closely as to consider them part of ourselves. An example is
that when someone insults Christ or His Church, we should be angry, and, more angry than we would be if we
ourselves were insulted, since His honor is more important than ours.


However, we know all too well that anger tends toward excess. Proof of this is that we do not praise people by
calling them angry—whereas we say ‘he is a courageous person’ or ‘she is a prudent person’ we do not testify
to someone’s holiness by saying ‘he is an angry person.’ Moreover, anger is hard to regulate because it is
attractive to us: its object, the administering of justice for offenses, which is called vengeance by medieval
authors, is good and so we wish to act upon it, but because it is so attractive, it encourages impetuosity and we
act hastily and disproportionately.


As St. James points out, anger also leads to sins of the tongue, for when we are angry, we often engage in false
accusation and detraction. With a person who hurts us or someone we love, we read into their actions and
assign motivations that are often not present and sometimes we go so far as to vocalize these accusations,
though that only adds to the gravity of the sin we have already committed through accusatory speech in our
minds. Other times we may confront the person, but we are not satisfied with addressing the grievance with
them alone, and so needlessly tell others of the offensive action, which sin is called detraction. Thus anger,
despite its inherent goodness, is also a capital vice, for it leads to so many other sins.


In Christian tradition, there are two virtues that moderate anger: meekness, which harnesses interior desire for
vengeance, and clemency, which mitigates the rendering of vengeance, meaning it tempers our use of
punishment. To return to the example of the parent and child, meekness helps the parent from disproportionate
interior anger by properly evaluating the injury suffered and placing it in context, while clemency ensures the
right exterior punishment when punishment is due. Since our interior dispositions lead to exterior actions,
meekness is the most important for us to cultivate, as then clemency will more likely fall in line.


Growth in meekness is fostered by two things in particular: first, silence; and second, the continual
remembrance of God’s mercy. Silence helps us to temper our anger because it creates an inner sanctuary where
we can evaluate the quality of an injury and respond to it properly. Silence also allows us to consider the other
person’s reasons for offending us, which is so often due to weakness rather than malice. If silence is given as a
punishment, that is, if we are obstinately silent on purpose with our offender, it is sinful; but to take space and
time to better consider an offense is virtuous.


The second help to meekness is remembrance of God’s mercy towards us. If the anger of God was given free
rein to act, each of us would be destroyed or plunged into hell—not only those whom we name as heretics or
infidels or sinners, but each one of us who has use of reason, without exception. We have each offended God to
such an extent that we deserve justice more than mercy, and yet He extends His mercy far more than He acts on
His wrath. If we are called to be like God, which is what it is to be holy and virtuous, meekness helps us put
our anger into perspective. As James says, the wrath of man does not work the justice of God, and this is worth
telling ourselves when we get hot under the collar about anything. The angry man thinks his anger is justified
in each situation and as he perceives it, without exception, so we should check ourselves in every case of anger.
God will have His day and so will His anger and His justice, but at the final judgment. In this life, He prefers
mercy to justice and thus so should we, for insofar as we extend mercy to others now, we will rejoice in His
anger at the end of time, rather than being destroyed by it.


As regards the current situation in the Church, we have reason to be angry. Christ is insulted by the ambiguity
of doctrine, especially the insinuation that the religion He founded is not unique, and He is insulted by the
duplicity of life in the person of His bishops and priests. But because anger is so attractive to us, we must
constantly reevaluate our wrath as to whether it is aiding us in virtue or eating us from within. Some vices
never tend toward the good, while others, like anger, tend to both good and evil alike. If our anger leads us to
more prayer and sacrifice, to measured speech, and to greater hope in God, it is good; if it leads us to excessive
speech and accusation, to spending more time reading of controversy than reading Scripture, to becoming men
of anger rather than men of mercy, our anger is deceiving us.


In this struggle to rightly employ anger, let us ask the Blessed Virgin for help. Though immaculate, she was
angry—angry against the devil, against sin, against lies. But at the same time, she is meek beyond compare and
the mother of mercy and repentance. She prays for all her children, even the duplicitous, that they may know
the fullness of redemption her Son won for us, and may not waste His precious blood by their indifference,
sloth, or malice. May she, by her intercession, teach us to use our anger well, for the salvation of souls and for
the building up the body of Christ, the Church. And may we, by her aid, thus reach the halls of heaven, where
there shall be no need for anger, for sinners shall be punished, the just rewarded, and the Holy Trinity glorified,
and we shall praise His justice and mercy forever and ever.