We Read That the Lord was Angry

In the Roman Breviary, Sexagesima week highlights Noah and the Deluge, sobering us up psychologically for our Lenten penances.

The 4th lesson in Matins contains an extract from St. Ambrose of Milan’s treatise on Noah’s Ark, and the lesson begins with a simple but puzzling sentence:

“We read that the Lord was angry.”

Uncontroversial as such a statement would have been for pagans to apply to their own false deities, to the Christian it is a little odd. Ambrose knows, as we do, that there is something improper in applying such human emotions to God:

“God’s thoughts are not as man’s thoughts; in Him there is no such thing as change of mind, no such thing as to be angry and cool down again.”

What do we mean by God’s anger, then?

Ambrose answers the question by seeing a didactic reason for this language:

“These things are written that we may know the bitterness of our sins, whereby we have earned the Divine wrath.”

“To such a degree had iniquity grown that God, Who by His nature cannot be moved by anger, or hatred, or any passion whatsoever, is represented as provoked to anger.”

In Ambrose’s mind, Scripture allows this anthropomorphism in order to teach us how heinous and deadly our sins really are.

Likewise, a parent is not truly angry at a small child who unknowingly does something dangerous. But in a raw and emotional moment of correction, that parent’s reaction could look very much like anger: an intense tone, a loud and urgent voice, maybe a sudden beeline and a violent extraction that can result in broken objects or even injuries.

A gentle admonishment might do for little infractions, but not for something where the child’s life or health is gravely threatened. After all, we would be appalled if we saw a parent too casually admonish a child doing something extremely dangerous. An immediate and extraordinary remedy is the proper warning of an immediate and extraordinary danger.

And that lesson needs to be reinforced to all present, from spectators to the child himself.

Likely we have a better understanding of Ambrose’s argument today than we’ve had in recent decades, when the world’s iniquities seemed less systemic. Now having watched iniquities spiraling out of control everywhere, and cringing in expectation of what is to come, we are in a better place to understand what is meant by “God’s anger.”

Lest we only focus on the chastisement part of all this, however, Ambrose reminds us of hope: a lifeline out of the Divine wrath for us and our kin, and even a bright future, if only we can stay out of the shadows and maintain our state of grace.

But more effectually to condemn the rest of men, and to manifest the goodness of God, it is written that Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Here we learn also that the sin of his neighbor casteth no shadow on the righteous, when he is kept as a stock from whence the whole race are to spring.

In the end, we all learn the lesson of God’s anger.

It’s just a matter of whether we learn it in our last terror-filled minutes, clawing up desperately as we sink under the waters, or whether we learn it shuddering in awe, safely aboard the ark.

February 10, 2021