December 6, 2007
On the closing pages of Old Testament prophecy, Malachi prophesied that God was coming to save his people. His words were directed to a people unfaithful to the covenant. No longer did they believe that God even cared for them. They had lost their sense of God.
To this sinful people, Malachi announces that God will come in judgment. He will make them know that He is not absent. He will make them realize that his covenant remains. Despite man’s infidelity, God is faithful. Malachi uses an image for the imminent coming of God that provokes fear and trembling.
The prophet says, “Behold, I shall send my messenger to clear a way before me. And suddenly the Lord…will come…Who will be able to resist the day of his coming? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire…He will take his seat as refiner and purifier, he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver so that they can make the offering to the Lord with uprightness” (Mal 3:1-3). Thus, the very last Old Testament portrait of God’s final act of salvation is that of the "refiner's fire." Advent is the time to ready oneself for this fire.
When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Moses “covered his face, for he was afraid to look…” (Ex 3:6). Instinctively, we draw back from fire. It inspires respect. It separates. It symbolizes transcendence. The soft glow of the Advent candles against the winter’s night is but a faint glimmer of the consuming fire of God’s approach to man.
Each Advent the beautiful strands of Handel’s Messiah repeat the somber warning of Malachi, "Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?" God is coming with the refiner’s fire. Advent, therefore, is about something more than Christmas decorations and holiday shopping. It is the time to get ready for the coming of God. It is time to face the fire.
The Old Testament closes with Malachi. As his voice falls silent, the New Testament opens with John the Baptist and his strident call to conversion. John is the messenger who prepares the way before the coming of God. John stirs the crowds for the imminent coming of Jesus, who is God. He tells the crowds to repent for the Messiah will come with fire (cf. Mt 3:11-12; Lk 3:9, 15-18). The Baptist makes his own the imagery of Malachi. The Messiah is coming with the refiner’s fire.
The refiner’s fire does not destroy. It perfects. It purifies and separates the impurities from the silver or the gold. With fire, the refiner seeks to separate or remove all the dross. He also labors to shape the material into a thing of beauty. The refiner’s fire is an apt image for the ministry of Jesus. God’s coming to us in Jesus is the fire in our midst that brings us to perfection as the sons and daughters of God.
When the refiner works with fire, he keeps his eye ever watchful on the object of his labor. When he is able to see his reflection in the silver or gold, his work is done. So too Christ. He keeps his eye on us as he refines and purifies us from our sins and impurities. He patiently works with us until his image is seen in us. This is the reason why Advent brims over with hope.
Hope is the virtue of new beginnings. Hope offers the chance to begin anew. Hope strains for what lies ahead. Thus, Advent, the season of hope, begins a new liturgical year. As the secular world prepares to put a period to the old year, the Church opens the pages of a new calendar that points us in the direction of the Parousia.
During Advent, we prepare to celebrate the historical coming of the Son of God as the child of Mary born in Bethlehem. We pray more intensely. We fast more joyously. We do our part to be ready for the day when Christ will come again in glory at the end of time. We do so with great hope.
Christ who has already accomplished our salvation (cf. Rm 8:24-25) will come again. Yet, even now, he is present among us with the refiner’s fire. He himself is readying us for the day when our sins will be removed and "we shall become like him for we shall see him as he really is" (1 John 3:2). This is what makes Advent the season of hope.