A Blog by Rolf Wagner, February 14, 2019
Having been raised in an evangelical Christian home, I’ve attended church since childhood. After realizing who the Catholic Church really was, I was received into her at the 2000 Easter vigil. This decision was, if not the most important, certainly among the most important of my life. However, there has always been an issue I’ve had with the Church, which I’ve pushed to the back of my brain, since I’ve been received into full communion. The nagging thought that has been very quiet for 19 years, has now been roused from its slumber and has become quite the insistent voice.
I’ve been transformed by the knowledge and experience of God’s unconditional love for me, knowing that this love caused Him to become fully man, while fully God, emptying Himself, dying a shameful crucifixion for my sake and, by his blood wiping my sinful slate clean. Doing this for all of humanity for all time is the central, pivotal truth of salvation history. We celebrate this every time we are at mass, as we worship the Eucharistic sacrifice. However, I believe that we have cheapened the meaning and significance of that event by ONLY preaching and hearing about God’s unconditional love. Let me explain.
The reading of the entire Book, reveals a God of Justice and Mercy, a God of Fearful transcendence and approachability, a God of Judgement and Love, a God who is King and One who is Abba/Daddy, a God who hates sin and who is called the Friend of sinners, a God of Mount Sinai and Golgatha. The juxtaposition of opposites is not only curious, it is crucial. I’m reminded of the story of Moses in Exodus 19, 3 days before the 10 commandments were handed to Moses. Everyone was to consecrate and purify themselves before that day and not approach the mountain on pain of death. “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke, and the voice of God answered him.”
As I’ve listened to homilies over the past 19 years, I get the impression that the clergy is somewhat embarrassed by this aspect of God’s nature, and they quickly shift, if they talk about it all, to God being loving and nice. Instead of the homilies being painted in bright arresting colors, they always seem to be painted in various shades of beige. God is a nice guy. Please . . . please come back next week.
Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man, but He is NOT a kitten and a lamb. He is the Lion of Judah and the Lamb. We have attempted to remove the teeth of, and declaw, the Wild God. We have tried to domesticate him, and in a subtle way, perhaps without intending to do so, make him a more impotent God. I’m reminded of an early scene in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” with Lucy, Susan, Peter and Edmund in Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s den. After dinner, Mr. Beaver starts to wax eloquent:
“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
You’ll understand when you see him.”
“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.
“Is-is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond- the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
He is ever loving, ever welcoming and embracing of the sinner, like me. Before the prodigal is even close to the Fathers house, the burning love of the Father compels him to run and greet his lost son. However, He is not domesticated, He loves fiercely, despite how cuddly and unoffensive we try to portray Him. You want a safe God? Look for Him somewhere else. You will not find Him in the Church, despite the occasional saccharin-laced pablum that is passed off as a homily. The unconditional love of God is made precious precisely because of God’s holiness and capacity for judgement.
I wonder if this lopsided portrayal of Christ is not, at least partially, to blame for our current crisis? By not teaching the flock about a certain truth of God’s character, are the clergy in essence, preaching a heresy of omission? Certainly, this one-sided portrayal of Jesus would allow one to come to an inaccurate conclusion of God’s nature. Much of the flock’s imagination is captured by a heretical image of God. I’ve run into it . . . quite often. Could it be that the preachers themselves actually start believing that half-truth? This isn’t benign, it has consequences. Is that why reverence and fear of the Lord have waxed thin. Is that why we’ve become casual in our approaching God’s throne of grace? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10).” Is that why we see such criminal foolishness in the ranks of our Church’s leadership? Is that why sin which would have scandalized the hierarchy in times past is simply passed off as “boys being boys” . . . and that we shouldn’t expect much to change too quickly because of the “human condition?” Stunning.
I’ll close with the following apparent contradiction. After Elijah confronted and slaughtered Jezebel’s prophets of Baal, he ran to the desert in fear for his life (1Kings19). After being strengthened by the Angel of God, three manifestations appeared before him. A great and powerful wind that tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks; A great earthquake; and then a great fire. But the Lord was not in any of them. Then a gentle whisper . . . God’s voice, “When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” The whisper, though gentle, was powerful and low. It was the whispering voice of the Lion.
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Rolf Wagner is Chief Prefect of the Congregation of Pew Heating at his local parish. He holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from The University of Texas at Austin. Rolf and his wife Barbara have one son and have been married for 39 years. He enjoys sailing and scuba diving in his free time, of which there is precious little.