Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Votive Prayers in Time of Earthquake: Theodicy

Please continue to pray for the people of Christchurch: God rest the souls of those killed; God comfort and strengthen the living who have endured terror, loss of treasured possessions, injury, even – worst – the death of loved ones.


If it can be contemplated without offence to those in Christchurch, it struck me how full-blooded and disturbingly Biblical (!) are the Votive Prayers in Time of Earthquake, as found in the Traditional Roman Missal (that of 1962, and way back through the centuries): for they dare to acknowledge that it is from God's hands that we are dealt death and disaster, life and healing.

This is a consideration of theodicy: as it were, justifying God's ways to Man.  (For it is evidently presumptuous in the extreme to attempt to justify Man's inhumanity to God.)

Yes, earthquakes will happen; and notoriously New Zealand, with all its beauties, is a very unstable corner of the world, teetering on the edge of two tectonic plates (indeed, that is why Aotearoa is so beautiful – it highly geologically active).  That said, we are not considering geoscience, but the whys and wherefores of Divine Providence: why God did make the world, and set it up and direct it so that, just now, a terrible earthquake struck Christchurch (as in recent times Haiti and Chile have been devastated, and as a tsunami raised by a tremblor slew hundreds of thousands only a few years earlier).

God, of course, was free to make the world as He chose: He could have made it better, or worse, but in the event He made it as it is.  We must return to the central point that these prayers repeat, which I now repeat: that it is from God's hands that we are dealt death and disaster, life and healing.

What sort of a God could act thus?  The True God.

This is indeed the message of Scripture.. but what a scandal to moderns, who (if they believe at all) love only to prate of a lovey-dovey God made of fairy floss, who angrily reject any insinuation that the Lord might scourge us on account of our sins, let alone that we and the whole world ought tremble before the Almighty, the dread Sovereign of all.

Lutherans tend to be rather readier to testify to these truths than postconciliar Catholics.  Yet it is the Sapiential Book of Ecclesiasticus, from the Deuterocanonicals, that tells us straight: "Good things and evil, life and death, poverty and riches, are from God."  (Ecclesiasticus xi, 14).

Consider the prayers at issue – first, the Collect:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, “qui respicis terram, et facis eam tremere”: parce metuentibus, propitiare supplicibus; ut, cujus iram terræ fundamenta concutientem expavimus, clementiam contritiones ejus sanantem jugiter sentiamus.  Per Christum Dominum nostrum.  Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, “Who lookest down upon the earth and makest it tremble” (Ps 103:32a), spare those who are afraid, show Thy mercy to those who implore Thee; that we who fear Thine anger, which shaketh the foundations of the earth, may evermore enjoy Thy mercy, which healeth its commotions.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Indeed as the Psalmist sings, God looks down upon the world, which trembles before His Face; and indeed we ought fear the anger of the Divine Majesty, all-righteously enkindled against the enormities and crimes of sinners.  (Comets were once thought to be the sins of men risen up to heaven and set aflame by the Lord's wrath: but as a wag once opined, if comets were indeed thus formed, would not the sky be ever full of them?!)  

This Collect very boldly juxtaposes the Divine wrath and the Divine mercy: God's anger is confessed to shake the very foundations of the earth (cf. Ecclus xvi, 19), and yet we hope in Him!  The same Deity Who causes the earth to tremble, heals also its commotions.  "For it is thou, O Lord, that hast power of life and death, and leadest down to the gates of death, and bringest back again" (Wisdom xvi, 13).

What is "the wrath of God"?  Does God have feelings as man?  "My ways are not your ways..."  Yet we know from Romans (how Lutheran! how Biblical!) that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice" (Romans i, 18) – the Lord hates only one thing, sin.  For did not the Creator see all that He made, and find it very good (Genesis i, 31)?  How did God deal with the world when sin came into His Creation?  Did He destroy it for ever?  No; the Flood did recede...  We know that in the fulness of time He sent His Son; and that Son died and rose again for us, and revealed that the way to heaven is by the royal way of the Holy Cross, just as He suffered and so entered into His glory.

Next, the Secret:

Deus, “qui fundasti terram super stabilitatem suam”, suscipe oblationes et preces populi tui: ac trementis terræ periculis penitus amotis, divinæ tuæ iracundiæ terrores, in humanæ salutis remedia converte; ut, “qui de terra sunt, et in terram revertentur”, gaudeant se fieri sancta conversatione in cælestes.  Per Christum Dominum nostrum.  Amen.
O God, “Who didst establish the earth on firm foundations” (Ps 103:5a), receive the offerings and prayers of Thy people, and by wholly removing the perils of earthquake, turn the terrors of Thy divine anger into healing remedies for mankind: that “those who are of the earth and to the earth shall return” (cf. Gen. 3:19), may rejoice in becoming citizens of heaven by the holiness of their lives.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

We know and declare that God is the Creator Who emplaced the earth, and after Man's Fall, told him that as he came from the earth, to the earth in death he would return – yet promised, first in ways veiled and then revealed in His Son, to bring repentant Man from the dust of the earth to the promised land of heaven, made holy by grace, as once he was soiled by sin.  Holiness of life: that is God's gift and requirement.  Christ lived an all-holy life, and yet endured death; holiness is not the avoidance of all care.

Holy Mother Church confesses what Scripture reveals, as in the history of Israel (sinning, being punished, repenting, being redeemed): we fear "the terrors of... divine anger" and yet confidently look for healing from the same Lord, not a capricious Deity, but the True God in Whom justice and mercy meet, nay, Who Is Justice and Mercy at one and the same time.

And this prayer makes a most important point: that our hope is not, is not, for this life only: for if it were, then, as the Apostle says, we would be the most pitiable of all.  Earthquakes kill, yes; but whether by earthquake or natural death, we all shall die.  Man is mortal, doomed to die.  What comes next is infinitely more important.  This life is not the only one; indeed, as Kant put it in his philosophy, and as more orthodox Christians have ever averred, we must needs postulate, we must needs believe in a God Who works justice, so that the wicked shall not triumph for ever, nor the poor for ever labour in vain; so that justice is done and seen to be done, if not in this miserable and naughty world, certainly in the life of the world to come.

Finally, the Postcommunion:

Tuere nos, Domine, quæsumus, tua sancta sumentes: et terram, quam vidimus nostris iniquitatibus trementem, superno munere firma; ut mortalium corda cognoscant, et te indignante talia flagella prodire, et te miserante cessare.  Per Christum Dominum nostrum.  Amen.
We beseech Thee, O Lord, to keep us, who receive Thy holy mysteries, and by Thy heavenly power make firm the earth, which we see trembling because of our sins; that men may know in their hearts that these scourges come from Thy wrath and cease by Thy mercy. Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The last line sums up the doctrine of these three orations: "that men may know in their hearts that these scourges come from Thy wrath and cease by Thy mercy".

Is this a prayer that could be heard without dismay these days?

Man, not particularly wishing to acknowledge his sins, is loathe to even imagine that such would ever earn punishment!  "A loving God will never punish" – says the fool.  We have so magnified the everlasting mercy of the Lord as to spurn the Scripture truth of the Divine wrath.  Yet it is the one Revelation that attests to both: is it not the very definition of heresy to pick and choose?

We trust in God through our Lord Christ, Who revealed to us God's love in undergoing the cruellest of deaths, God's love so extreme that it spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – for though God could have saved the world in any other way, He chose to reveal the lengths to which He would go to save us.  In this, we see also that our journey to heaven, into the abyss of God's Love, will not be an easy ride: or rather, it will be made easy by grace, while to nature it may be sharp and trying.

Interestingly, it was in past ages the tendency to fear God so much as to doubt His mercy: whereas the opposite heresy is the modern fashion.  Does this not equally disparage Christ's Sacrifice?  If God's love is fondly imagined to forbid Him ever closing the gates of heaven against anyone, be he the worst and most unrepentant sinner, does that not make Christ's death utterly superfluous, even pointless?

Confessing God's mercy that we all do not utterly perish, we acknowledge His justice, and we cry to Him to save us, trusting that He and He alone can deliver us from  all threatening perils.

A flagello terræmotus, libera nos, Domine.

From the scourge of earthquake, O Lord, deliver us.

1 comment:

pablotas64 said...

Hi Josh. Some interesting comments there. Hope your cold is better soon.

Paul B