Experts in Anger

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

Has anyone here been to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert? 

I ask because that’s where one of the most famous images of “Christ Pantocrator” is. “Pantocrator” means “all powerful.” Christ Pantocrator is the most frequent depiction of him in Orthodox Christianity. The one in St. Catherine’s is among the oldest, most revered images in the Christian world. I’ve not gotten to see it in person yet, but of course it’s easy to find the image online.

There’s something strange about it when you see it for the first time. It has all the usual features you’re used to seeing in the Orthodox Church’s icons of Christ: the gold halo, the hand gesturing a blessing, the direct gaze at the viewer. Yet something about it is different. It took someone explaining it to me that his face is divided in two halves. One the one side is an expression of calm serenity; on the other, a fierce, angry look. You can only tell really by covering up one side. Or, as some have done, holding a mirror right down the middle of his face so you can see what the entirety of it would look like one way, and then the other. 

Historians tell us that it was made following the church’s Council of Chalcedon in 451. That’s where Christ was declared to be fully human and fully divine, a position we still hold today. It often happened in response to such church councils that various decrees and visual images would then be made and distributed to help reinforce the official doctrine of the church. 

So it was with Christ Pantocrator at St. Catherine’s. The two sides of Christ’s face were to show Jesus in his fully human and fully divine form, just as the Council of Chalcedon had affirmed. Fully divine in all the ways that might be understood: in control, level gaze, loving. And fully human in all the ways it means to be human: sunken in, tired face, and even angry.

The effect is a picture not only that affirms Jesus’ humanity and divinity co-existing, but also the intimate connection between love, and anger. 

There’s a lot you can say about today’s Gospel passage. But what stands out to most of us is that Jesus is mad. He’s mad at the commercialism, the misplaced priorities of institutional religion, and what he perceives is an exploitative system so far removed from the genuine, heartfelt worship of God he cared so much about. Many in his day agreed with him about all this excess and corruption. Not many would have dared to do what he did, though. 

It sometimes surprises me that the early Christians passed down this story. To show their leader getting angry like this must have made some people uncomfortable. I know it still does. I have to think, though, that those Christians preserved it because they knew that anger and love aren’t as far apart as we tend to think. 

Six years ago I preached on this at the 8 am service; we were doing something different at the later service. I don't normally quote myself (!), but seeing what I wrote then took me back to what we were dealing with as a country at that time. See if you remember. This was before the pandemic, in some ways another world, but in other ways, not. 

So what do we do with the angry Jesus we have in this reading? 

I've found myself thinking a lot lately about anger. It's all around us, and I feel like I've never seen so much productive anger all at once as we're seeing now. 

The anger of those high school students down in Florida, not accepting the usual politician's meaningless, unproductive "thoughts and prayers" but demanding real change and not going away until they're heard. May those kids STAY angry. It’s time for change.

The anger of those young gymnasts in Michigan coming one by one, in the hundreds, up to the microphone to yell at the man, the coward, who abused them and to challenge the people who let this happen when they should have seen it, and stopped it.

The anger of young black men who get arrested at more than 3 times the rate of their white counterparts for minor drug offenses.

The anger of all the women of the Me Too movement who for years weren't heard, or felt afraid to speak out against the abuse they've suffered at the hands of powerful men. 

And we’re a privileged nation! The people in Syria - how angry must they be? The Rhohinga. The girls in Nigeria kidnapped by Boko Haram for going to school!

There is SO MUCH to be angry about. There is so much we OUGHT to be angry about. Maybe a question for us this third Sunday in Lent is Are We Angry Enough?


Now it’s funny because, three years ago--three years after that sermon I just read from--I also preached this passage, and back then I said, let’s just steer clear of anger and leave it to the experts, like Jesus. 

But being an expert at anger is a calling of every Christian. I think that’s why this passage was preserved and passed down. As that ancient icon reminds us--as this story reminds us--anger is a side of love. Think of the face of Christ Pantocrator: one side gentle, one side angry, the whole face, one of deeply profound love.

How do you become an expert at anger? Here are two thoughts I have on that. First, you have a trusted community that can help you discern whether your anger is well placed or not. Anger is complicated, and there are many corrosive forms of it. We need an open, honest community of people, rooted in Scripture and religious faith, that can help us. Our faith tells us that systems that harm the poor, or ridicule or deny basic dignity to our fellow human beings--these things, we should be angry about. Blows to our ego, we do not object to. People running roughshod over God’s creation, polluting fields and oceans, endangering our children’s future--these things, we get angry about. An insensitive tweet or email from a colleague, no.

This isn’t to say faith communities always get this right. But the good, careful ones can save us from the kind of misplaced and destructive anger that makes us just think All anger is bad. It isn’t. And we miss an important part of our Christian calling if we try to shy away from it altogether. 

The other piece of advice on becoming an expert in anger, is to make anger more than a reaction, but to link it to action. If something makes you mad, and you’re pretty sure in discernment with others that it’s an important thing to be mad about, then what are you going to do? If you don’t ask that last question, then it’s not expert, and spiritual anger. It’s just anger. Diffuse, unproductive, corrosive, self-righteous, and we have enough of that.

What is your faith community saying?

And what are you going to do?

The writer Garrett Keizer said of this Gospel reading “I cannot believe in a God that doesn’t turn over money tables.” To which I’d add: or a faith, that doesn’t say that anger can be good, because it challenges and changes things that aren’t right. We just need to know when, and how to use it. May God give us that grace, the courage, and the understanding to know when to be mad. Amen.