Wrath, Western Lit, and The Cross

by Jesse Payne March 4, 2016

The leadoff hitter in baseball has a significant job. The tone that he sets filters down throughout the lineup, whether for good or bad.  If he gets on base, his team is encouraged and is in good position; if he gets out, the other team is encouraged and their confidence boosted. There’s momentum in what he does and it carries along throughout the game.

In the epic history that is Western literature, the leadoff hitter has an extremely important role. This particular player will set the tone for centuries and millennia of subsequent writings. What this leadoff hitter does will forever stamp how Western literature is written, developed, and read. So, who bears the responsibility and weight of being the leadoff hitter in Western literature?

One little ancient Greek word: μηνιν. Menin.

That’s it—the first word in Western literature, carrying the weight and responsibility of getting it all rolling. And, as so often happens in baseball, this leadoff hitter will significantly impact how all of Western literature unfolds.

The ancient Greek word menin leads off Western literature because it’s the very first word in the very first line of the very first Western story: Homer’s The Iliad.

What does menin mean? Well, that’s pretty important. If it’s the leadoff hitter of Western lit, then it carries the responsibility of setting the tone for all future literature. And does it ever: Menin, in its ancient Greek context, means “wrath.”

So in the very first line of the very first piece of Western literature we meet the very first hero of Western lit—Achilles. And what do we learn about Achilles? He’s searing hot about something, full of revenge and rage and wrath. Wrath is the first thing we read, and wrath continues down through our literature and culture today.

While we can read far beyond that first word, we haven’t advanced much past it. It continues to hang over our heads, fly from our mouths, infiltrate our relationships, and darken our hearts. We’re still there, in the midst of that very first word. Our society is soaked in it. It sometimes appears as gossip. Sometimes as anger. But it’s all around us. We’re far less advanced than we like to think.

Wrath dominates the evening news. It dominates movies. It dominates history, including the most recent 20th century, perhaps the world’s most violent 100 year span. It dominates us. Maybe classics like The Iliad tell us more about ourselves than we thought.

While wrath came into western lit through The Iliad, it first came into existence in the garden when mankind rebelled against God (Gen. 3). God’s wrath toward sinners is completely holy, just, and right. But it’s bad news for us. We had no appeasement to offer and no goodness to fall back on. But Jesus’ final words on the cross change the game forever: “It is finished.” In Christ, no wrath, no anger, no punishment exists. It’s been absorbed in his broken body on the tree.

Because of the gospel, wrath ends where life begins—Jesus of Nazareth. Through the cross, he has destroyed the condemnation that was rightfully ours (Rom. 8:1). Where God’s holy wrath once hung over our head because of sin, Jesus has removed it through his death and resurrection. Amid all of the anger and hate and rage that reverberates throughout our society both then and now, Jesus Christ descended to destroy our debt and write a better ending.

Our leadoff hitter, Adam, didn’t get the job done (Rom. 5:12). We’ve continued the family tradition and have rejected God as well. We were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). We didn’t need to be better people. We needed our guilt pardoned. We needed victory, and Jesus Christ won it for us when he died in our place and walked out of the tomb alive and well. Achilles may be the first hero, but Jesus is the true one. Wrath may be the first word, but it’s not the last.