The Tender Mercy of the Refiner’s Fire

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 1:68-79

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79.

What a remarkable contrast this is to last week’s gospel lesson about savage seas, quaking heavens and deep foreboding over what is coming upon the world. This week Zachariah, father of John the Baptizer, assures us that “the dawn from on high will break upon us…giv[ing] light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” Yet though the contrast is stark, there is no inconsistency here. For all of its dark imagery, last Sunday’s gospel was an announcement of impending redemption. So, too, this week’s gospel, for all of its joy and hopefulness, makes clear that the good news of God’s gentle reign does not come easily. Grace is not cheap. The way of the Lord needs to be “prepared.” That is the role of God’s “messenger.” The prophet Malachi tells us in no uncertain terms what that preparation looks like. It is “a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Malachi 4:2-3.  

The take away here is that we are not ready for the reign of God. We are not yet the kind of people capable of living gently and peacefully on the land taking only what we need and putting back more than what we take. We are not ready to be a people of many tongues, tribes and nations. We are not prepared to let go of our societal privilege, our sense of entitlement to a lifestyle that is impoverishing others and ruining our planet. We are not yet prepared to let God be God and content ourselves with being God’s faithful creatures. If we are to live under God’s gentle reign in a renewed creation, we must become something altogether other than what we now are. To use an old theological term, we need sanctification. We need to have the mind of Christ formed in us.  While it is true that God loves us just the way we are, it is also true that God loves us too much simply to leave us that way.

The great Fourth Century pastor and teacher, Athanasius of Alexandria, gives us helpful analogy:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likenss is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek and to save that which was lost.” On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria, Translated by Sister Penelope Lawson (c. 1944 and pub. by Pantianos Classics), p. 30.  

Like his successors in the Orthodox tradition, Athanasius focuses chiefly on the miracle of the Incarnation as central to the gospel proclamation. For him, salvation and sanctification are indistinguishable. Christ’s Incarnation fully restores all of humanity to its full potential for reflecting God’s image in the world. Jesus is the first and only one ever to be fully and completely human. In so doing, he brought the image of God back to a humanity that had lost it. Jesus’ crucifixion was the expected outcome of his Incarnation. In his death, Jesus took upon himself the worst humanity could throw at him and voluntarily embraced the mortal destiny of the human race. Unlike Adam who grasped at godhood and found death; Jesus embraced humanity with all its created limits and was raised from death to eternal life.

In conclusion to his treatise on the Incarnation, Athanasius has this to say: “But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life….[] anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.” Ibid. p. 88. The dichotomy between faith and works, so vexing to the Western Church, was never problematic for the Church of the East. For Athanasius, faith is never divorced from practice. If you would have faith in Christ, then imitate Christ and the saints. If you would do that which is right, believe in the image of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes much the same argument in his Cost of Discipleship, where he insists that “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press, Ltd.; pub. by Macmillan Company 1963), p. 69.

The work of the church, then, is to be that refining fire forming people capable of recognizing, loving and living into the reign of God to the end that all people learn to become genuinely human reflecting the divine image. John the Baptizer will have more to say about exactly what that entails in next Sunday’s gospel lesson. Suffice to say that being human in an inhumane world challenges much of what we take for granted-such as our right to keep what we legally own; our right to employ violence in our own defense; our rights as citizens and our right to our very lives. Once we recognize the image of God where it is rightly found, namely, in each individual person, it becomes impossible to hate, discriminate, defraud, oppress or kill. That is what it means to be “refined” and “purified.”

Here is a prayer/poem by Michel Quoist about the kind of purification to which our lessons and the season of Advent point.

I Would Like to Rise Very High

I would like to rise very high, Lord;
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.
I would then see the universe, humanity, history, as the Father sees them.
I would see in the prodigious transformation of matter,
In the perpetual seething of life,
Your great Body that is born of the breath of the Spirit.
I would see the beautiful, the eternal thought of your Father’s Love taking form, step by step:
Everything summed up in you, things on earth and things in heaven.
And I would see that today, like yesterday, the most minute details are part of it.
Every man in his place,
Every group
And every object.
I would see a factory, a theatre, a collective-bargaining session and the construction of a fountain.
I would see a crowd of youngsters going to a dance,
A baby being born, and an old man dying.
I would see the tiniest particle of matter and the smallest throbbing of life,
Love and hate,
Sin and grace.
Startled, I would understand that the great adventure of love, which started at the beginning of the world, is unfolding before me,
The divine story which, according to your promise, will be completed only in glory after the resurrection of the flesh,
When you will come before the Father, saying: All is accomplished. I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.
I would understand that everything is linked together,
That all is but a single movement of the whole of humanity and of the whole universe toward the Trinity, in you, by you, Lord.
I would understand that nothing is secular, neither things, nor people, nor events,
But that, on the contrary, everything has been made sacred in its origin by God
And that everything must be consecrated by man, who has himself been made divine.
I would understand that my life, an imperceptible breath in this great whole,
Is an indispensable treasure in the Father’s plan.
Then, falling on my knees, I would admire, Lord, the mystery of this world
Which, in spite of the innumerable and hateful snags of sin,
Is a long throb of love towards Love eternal.

I would like to rise very high, Lord,
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

Source: Quoist, Michel, Prayers (c. 1963 Sheed & Ward, Inc.) Translated by Agnes M. Forsyth and Anne Marie de Cammaille. Michel Quoist (1921-1997) was ordained a priest in1947. A French Catholic of the working-class, Quoist reveled in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in forms of traditional piety. He was for many years pastor to a busy city parish in Le Havre, France serving a working class neighborhood and developing ministries to young people through Catholic Action groups. Prayers, the book from which the above poem was taken, has been translated from the original French into several languages including Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and English.

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