Like half the world, I've spent a share of the Christmas season thinking about Jesus. I suppose after writing stories about Nativity scenes and reviewing books about Christmas cheer, it's normal. Discussing the Bible may not always be appropriate for a daily columnist, but this time of year, I think the topic is a natural.
To begin with, I'm sometimes troubled by the anger of Jesus - as when he drove people from the temple. But I think I've hit on a way of viewing his anger that finally makes sense to me.I'm bothered by his anger, I suppose, because my own anger troubles me; it leaves me feeling narrow inside, closed off. Anger paralyzes me, drowns out more subtle feelings and impulses. Somehow, righteous sadness - not righteous anger - seems like the proper response in life.
Years ago, as an experiment, I tried reading philosopher Bertrand Russell at this time of year. Russell wrote "Why I Am Not a Christian." There, he talks about that anger of Jesus as a major reason he steers clear of the whole Christmas story.
Russell claims the "vindictive fury" of the adult Jesus is not as compelling as Socrates and his "bland and urbane" approach. Russell claims it is "far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation."
Russell needs to look at the "first cause" of anger. I got angry with a couple friends over the holidays. And I tried to get some distance on those flare-ups. I found the anger was masking some hurt or embarrassment. I thought of something Richard Bach, author of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," said to me last fall.
"With me," he said, "anger means I'm afraid of losing something. Maybe self-esteem, or a possession, or someone's love. My anger is always tied to my ego."
So what about the wrath of Jesus? As I mulled this over between Christmas carols, I decided Jesus really didn't have a flash temper. His outbursts were too calculated. When he drove the money-changers from the temple, for instance, he went away and braided a whip before coming back and chasing them off.
That's hardly a blind fury.
And if his anger was calculated, it had a purpose. And the purpose was to teach. His anger was just another object lesson - like all his actions. When Jesus heals the blind, he's saying "I'll give you a new way to look at the world." When he raises the dead he's saying "I can make a new life for you."
When he distributes loaves and fishes, I'm convinced he's really saying "There's enough of me - spiritually - to go around with plenty left over."
Every action is a living parable. So, when Jesus sends people scuttling from the temple, he's instructing. It's all metaphor. It's orchestrated. And you can't write a parable in the hot flush of a temper tantrum.
And so what's the lesson to be learned from the cleansing of the temple? He's showing us the amount of force and rigor it takes to keep evil from "our" temples - from our bodies.
Every time it seems Jesus is giving in to anger, you can find a "living parable" at work. No matter what Bertrand Russell says, you don't need to be a philosopher to see Jesus was not a hot-head.
I feel more at ease about anger in general now. In the case of Jesus, it hid allegorical truths. In my case, it hides loss and hurt.
Does all this smack of rationalization? Perhaps. Yet it does seem consistent with other things I believe.
Now, however, the tough part starts. The trick will be not only to control my anger, but to always see the true cause for it so I can short circuit the very sensation of anger.
And that, I'm afraid, is going to be another trip through the refiner's fire.