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The Refiner's Fire: An Advent Meditation

God is not a warm glow somewhere off in the corner of our lives, but a consuming fire.

From Rockefeller Center in New York to the smallest village square anywhere, the lights and trees are already in position, bringing cheer to the darkness of a winter's night. Department store Santas and the abundance of toys suggest Christmas is a time for children. With gaily decorated houses, with Christmas lights shining warm and bright, at night the children are all snuggled in bed, with dreams of sugar plumbs dancing in their heads.

Meanwhile, the scripture readings being used in our churches during Advent seem strangely out of place. The words of a wild eyed prophet like John the Baptist or the Old Testament's Malachi seem to come from a different planet. They speak, not of the warm glow of Advent candles, but rather of God's judgment and fire. Clearly the coming of the Messiah is much more serious than child's play. "Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?" These questions, repeated again and again in the music of Handel's Messiah, remind us that the real message of this season is more difficult than most of us are prepared to hear, one that puts to the test all those easy promises and sentimental slogans of holiday greeting cards. "Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire."

Though the centerpiece of Christmas is that peaceful scene in Bethlehem: Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger, we are reminded during Advent, that all around this scene of quietude there revolves a world in turmoil. The news of the day is not particularly comforting or reassuring. As we prepare for Christmas we are very much aware that this world is now and ever shall be plagued by earthquake, wind and fire.

Both liturgically and literally, this is a season of fire. It is tragic that winter which is the coldest season is also the season when the most people are injured by fire. Fires are set intentionally by landlords trying to collect insurance money for tenement houses that no longer turn a profit; fires break out accidentally when poorly maintained furnaces malfunction; fires strike disproportionately in neighborhoods which are already run down and deteriorating; the emergency burn units in our hospitals are often most crowded during the Christmas season when people are most desperate for a little more warmth.

In this context it is all the more difficult to relate to Malachi's image of God as the refiner's fire. Especially when we remember that the refiner's fire is the very hottest and most powerful of its kind. The refiner's fire is made especially hot by carefully selecting just the right fuel, concentrating the heat and flame inside an oven where it grows hotter and hotter, and then force feeding those roaring flames with oxygen so that the fire will rage more ferociously than ever. Even in biblical times, the technology of metallurgy was well enough advanced that a man like Malachi would have known very well what he was talking about when he compared the coming of the Messiah to the raging of a refiner's fire.

Within our own religious tradition there is a long history of hell fire and brimstone preaching. In days of old ministers of the gospel were not worthy of their calling if they could not evoke vivid images of hell fire; in nineteenth century revival services worshippers swore they could feel the heat of hell's fire warming their pews. In the unheated churches of early New England, in which worshippers could see the frost in their breath when they rose to sing, those images of God's refining fires had a practical as well as a theological effect.

Today such preaching seems strangely out of place. But did you ever wonder why? Why does the prospect of a fiery inferno so little trouble our imagination? One reason is that we are much more aware of the calamity here on earth. In our minds the flames of an underground inferno or a judgment day seem far less real than the destructive fires of the great world wars, when whole cities were consumed. We are well aware that in recent history people like you and me have created furnaces to burn each other by the thousands and even by the millions. The word holocaust was given its most tragic meaning within western culture by people who were at least nominally Christian. And perhaps these facts of our own history are more terrifying than the visions of ancient prophets and apostles.

Instead of looking down into the bowels of the earth, we now look forward into the future to see the specter of world atomic war, or if not war, perhaps it will be some natural calamity. One scenario for the final days of life on our planet is painted in fire by Dr. George C. Reid of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He calculates that our particular neighborhood of the Milky Way is overdue for a cosmic disaster stemming from the explosion of a massive star known as a supernova. Such an explosion, producing in one moment the same amount of energy that our sun radiates in one billion years, would bring an end to life here on earth in a matter of minutes. So our modern scientists have made us aware that the words of the old time spiritual are not simply a matter of quaint sentimentality: "The lord gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, it's the fire next time."

Such a picture of the world's end is frightening because fire is so closely associated in the imagination with pain and destruction. Even so, the red, orange, yellow, and white dancing flames of fire have a strange allure. While on the one hand fire calls to mind scenes of danger and death, on the other hand fire signifies the life, vitality, passion, even the most tender of feelings called forth by love. And we speak symbolically of the fire of faith burning within us. The biblical image of the refiner's fire reminds us how humanity can turn the lethal power of fire to a creative use. The refiner's fire purges away the impurities of ore in the production of finer metals. The potter uses the fire of the kiln to produce the most beautiful and graceful works of art. And as we know, in nature, the fire of the sun, as well as the volcanic fires of earth are key factors in the creation of life itself. This planet may have come into being as the result of a fiery explosion in the life of our sun. At bottom this is why the prophet Malachi compared God to a fire. For he saw that the power and the creativity of fire ultimately belong to God.

Yet fire seems to have these contradictory qualities: on the one hand there's the beauty, the fascination, the power, and on the other hand there's the tremendously dangerous heat of the fire. Our theological forebears like Malachi and John the Baptist saw these two very different qualities in God. They saw a God of mercy and love, yes; but they also saw a God of judgment, even an angry God who leads us through many a trial by fire.

And it's the theme of judgment that we shy away from in the scriptures of Advent. In our day and age people want an upbeat God, a God who will forgive and forget our faults. As someone put it to me recently: "I think of God as a great white cloud with a smile." And so we steer clear of any talk about judgment.

How many of the millions of people who pour into our churches during Advent and Christmas reflect upon the risks and dangers associated with the Savior's coming? We think of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying cute and mute in a manger, when in fact we know that the voice of the mature Messiah rises up to challenge all that we stand for. His word is like a purifying fire that can blast away all that is shallow or superficial in our hearts, producing a people of much stronger mettle. Though we might choose an easier way, still in all honesty we know that the deepest truths do not emerge from the lap of luxury and ease. It's often the most difficult and trying experiences of life that have the most lasting effect.

As someone told me recently after the grueling experience of walking with her own mother through the trails of terminal cancer: "Something like this makes you look at life differently. I now realize you can't live with so many easy assumptions. Life is too short. While we've got the chance, we've got to find something solid." In the midst of life's greatest trials, aware of the frailty of our lives, the images painted by the prophets of old do not seem an exaggeration at all. God is a refining fire and we do need something solid to stand on. In this world where life itself seems like a passing shadow what could be more solid than God who made this world and everything in it? The fierce and fiery God of the Bible presents many problems on a theological plane. But this God is solid.

Of course, we prefer a God tailored to the thought patterns and preference of the modern world. It's much easier to see God as the kind of warm, fuzzy presence like the warm fire in a luxuriously appointed sitting room. And we see ourselves relaxing in the easy chair warmed by the fire of the hearth. We prefer the God of the sitting room to a God of earthquake, wind and fire. But sooner or later, we in the church must find the courage of our convictions. Do we want to settle for a God tailored to the comfort of the moment, or do we affirm a God commensurate with the realities of life as it actually is?

God is not a warm glow somewhere off there in the corner of our lives. God is a consuming fire and that fire rages within us until the frail and shakable things are burned away. In the fire of God's passionate love the solid and the most beautiful things are brought forth. So from the fires of desire there is born the child of a stronger and deeper faith. As the lessons of Advent remind us, it's from the fires and the trials of life that the child of faith is born. And it's that wiser child, that stronger child, who even now yearns to be born in each and every one of us. This is the deeper promise of this season; the lesson that endures when the last of the Christmas decorations have been put away and we must turn to those inner resources to keep us going in the darker, more dangerous seasons.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.