In today’s first reading, believers are reminded to speak “as is fitting among holy ones” and warned with a list of items which are considered “out of place.” Instead we are admonished to speak words of thanksgiving. This admonition about speaking “as is fitting among holy ones” follows one of the great passages from Ephesians that is not used in any weekday or Sunday liturgy. The verses speak to the role of anger in our lives – which seems to me the polar opposite of thanksgiving.
If during the course of the Sacrament of Reconciliation when a penitent confesses being angry as one of their sins, depending on tone and voice, I am probably going to return to that and ask a question or two about the nature and depth of their anger. It is my experience as a priest-confessor that anger that remains unaddressed is like a necrotic acid that eats away at the soul and life of a person.
Anger figures in both Colossians and Ephesians in lists of vices which the Christian must put away (Col. 3:8; Eph. 4:31). Our Lord himself warned his disciples that “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Matt. 5:22). But St. Paul also offers some practical advice. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger” (Eph 4:26)
How is it possible to “be angry without sinning”? There is no doubt a proper place for righteous indignation; but there is a subtle temptation to regard my anger as righteous indignation and other people’s anger as sheer bad temper. St Paul seems to suggest that anger can be prevented from degenerating into sin if a strict time limit is placed on it. But what if that is not possible—if the person with whom one is angry is not accessible, or refuses to be reconciled—then at least the heart should be unburdened of its animosity by turning to God in prayer.
What I often encounter during confession is people nursing their wrath to keep it warm. Not recommended as a wise policy or practice, and least of all for Christians: it magnifies the grievance, makes reconciliation more difficult, and destroys friendly relations. The nurturing of anger produces strife and discord and warning against such nurturing is a sentiment repeated in various forms in Israel’s wisdom literature. I particularly like this warning: “For as the churning of milk produces curds, and the pressing of the nose produces blood, the churning of anger produces strife.” (Prov. 30:33) How did you get curds? You churned the milk. So why are you surprised when you encounter strife? The nurturing within is never confined to “within.” It comes out and you become the one stirring the pot of discord among your family and friends. There are six things the LORD hates… (Prov 6:16) and included in that list is “the one who sows discord among kindred” (6:19)
What are we to do? Today’ first reading offers: “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.” (Eph 5:1-2) Even when our hearts are still “churning”, let your hands act out love and compassion in the world as the antidote to the necrotic acid within.
Fake until you make it? You could say that, but I prefer “Live as children of the Light.” Your heart will eventually catch up with your hands.