Friday of the First Week of Lent
How does fasting help us live better in other parts of our lives? That's a question many of us have this time of year, when the stomach/soul connection doesn't particularly seem self-evident. I am reminded, though, of a Friday in Lent at the parish I attended when I lived in Virginia. I remember getting into a long, drawn-out argument about Catholic social teaching, money and poverty with a fellow member of the Body of Christ. Oh, we made each other angry, time and time again.
But that year, during Lent, we also both showed up to the parish's Friday simple soup dinners and Stations of the Cross. And we both admitted to each other that there was something about the fact that both of us were willing to pare down our lives, to eat less and pray more, that made us more sympathetic to the other person. We still disagreed - but we found ways to have healthier, less strident disagreements. Our fast from food also meant a fast from anger.
It's a theme in today's readings, I think. Today's gospel reading (Matthew 5:20-26) is one of those readings that makes people scratch their heads. What can Jesus mean by comparing the traditional prohibition against murder with being angry? Who doesn't get angry? Isn't there even "righteous anger", times when we should get angry about evil in the world? And yet, Jesus is clear here: whoever gets angry gets the same kind of judgement - perhaps even worse judgement! - than a person who murders.
Perhaps part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is that none of us - absolutely none of us - get to be proud about "really" following God, not even in comparison to someone who murders. We all get angry. Today's first reading (Ezekiel 18:21-28) emphasizes, in fact, that even the wickedest, most murderous person who changes her mind at the last possible second and starts doing good is better, in God's sight, than the virtuous person who has lived all her life well but commits one blatant sin. In other words, even thinking that we are good is sinful.
Those are pretty difficult words to hear and very significant for today's readings. I think Jesus is emphasizing something else important, too, though. Note that when he compares murder to being angry, the one is absolutely prohibited, but being angry is not stated as "You shall never be angry." It is as though Jesus knows, we mere humans aren't really able not to get angry.
However, Jesus also knows that we mere humans can get very twisted in knots because of our anger. Anger has a way of going on and on, and turning into long-held grudges. I am constantly amazed (though I shouldn't be) at the people I know who are pretty nice, hospitable generous people by my reckoning. If they see or hear of some particular person or group of people who did something wrong to them in the past, it's amazing how fast they can become bitter and inhospitable (and truth be told, I've been there myself). At its most extreme, anger and accompanying bitterness has even been the source of murder, along with other evils.
So what does Jesus say? Not, "You shall not be angry" but rather, "go and be reconciled." Settle, and quickly. However you settle with others, yourself, or God, it doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be a way of not letting anger take our life. Don't let anger become a festering wound. What is the way out of the vicious cycle of anger and bitterness that can even lead to violence? It is to deal with anger well.
This Lent, let us pray for all of us, that we may find ways to deal rightly with our anger.
- Jana M. Bennett