Mal 3:1-4, 23,24; Ps 25:4,5ab, 8,9,10,14; Lk 1:57-66
O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the nations and their Savior. Come and save us, O Lord our God.
“Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” These words should resound with clarity in our ears, for we have prepared for the past three weeks and two days to celebrate the great Feast of Christmas. Each day, we have considered the coming of Christ two thousand years ago and have reawakened within ourselves the realization that He will come again to sum up all things. Looking at our world, we have been reminded that we must commune with Christ in Word and Sacrament and thus more effectively become the light of the world, salt of the earth, and handmaids of the Lord. With all of these motivating factors in place, we also have doubtlessly come to face the fact that the world is nevertheless a dark valley of tears, hanging more closely upon the precipice of utter destruction than it was two thousand years ago. Looking in ourselves, we see reflections of our own participation in the narcissism of our culture and our own unremitting egoism. Looking into the bleak landscape of post-modernity and the sorrowing depths of our hearts, it is tempting to succumb to utter despair. Is not this hope for Christ’s in-breaking nothing more than a pious fiction, a construct by which we only project our desires into reality? Do we have any solid clue by which we may discern the faintest outlines of His coming, both now and at the end of time?
Given the trends of philosophical skepticism in the post-modern West, we are acutely aware of the vast bridge which separates us from the other person, preventing us from easily understanding with any profound depth of knowledge. By closing its ears to these doubts, our culture has rejected this whole problem, and has reduced all things to the status of objects for consumption and domination. Yet, in the face of the Culture of Death, one cannot deny the sense of loneliness which ultimately follows this oppressing sense of separation from the other. Our “I” no longer seems able to penetrate the “Thou” of our fellow human beings, and thus so many suffer from depression, apathy, a desire to escape life itself. We say with the psalmist, “I am poor and lonely”. In the face of all this reduction of the other to an object, we still pine to escape from our loneliness, either through licit or illicit means.
Thus, we stand now within the mire of our culture, seemingly without even the hope which would come from our Faith. However, in the midst of such doubts, there are the seeds from which may spring a new appreciation of the other as being made in the image and likeness of God. In the contemporary sense of the complete “unknowability” of the other, we do grasp on the profound fact that the other person is not reducible to our own mental categories. This other person stands as an inviolable center of freedom who asserts his or her uniqueness and mystery. Indeed, we learn that we never can say to another person, “You always do such and such,” for to level such an accusation would be blasphemy. The great mystery of this free person stands before us, continuously demanding that we stretch our minds to accommodate him or her, not fill in the shades with our own strokes. Perhaps, in spite of all of the anguish of the contemporary societal ambiance, we have the disposition to be ready to accept God as he comes. All we must do is shake off the boredom and nihilism which weigh upon us.
The prophet Malachi today speaks of the coming of the “messenger of the covenant.” Though this is most commonly attributed to the coming of John the Baptist, we must remember that the ultimate messenger of the covenant is, of course, Jesus Christ, the Sacrament of the encounter with God. Like Malachi’s prophecy, Christ did not arrive according to the norms and dictates of Israel’s desires. Instead, this Desired One seems too be rather unendurable. Every moment from His Birth is indeed like the “refiner’s fire,” asking mankind to stoop lower in self-emptying love. Left to our own power, we would much rather be tempted to think of the “sweet Jesus” of Bethlehem, setting up a sort of picturesque paradise in the stable of his birth. Instead, fresh eyes should look upon this Infant and see what is the cost of Love. From this first moment of His entrance into history, the Cross is foreshadowed. The Crib itself is a self-abasement on the part of the Word through which all things were made.
In order to keep ourselves from becoming fearful, depressed, or jaded at these thoughts, we must remember why God became Man. He came because He is Love, redeeming and divinizing Love. It is precisely on account of this fact that “he is like the refiner’s fire,” for love is not a comfortable thing unless one is disposed to it. A lover who has been betrayed by an adulterous spouse will find it difficult and even painful either to give her heart in love or to accept the love of another. One who has felt isolated from the love of others from the time of childhood will much more readily take refuge in self-controlled situations than in the unsure waters of interpersonal relationships. Like a vampire, he will not place his heart too readily out in the open for fear of it being pierced with a stake. The process of learning to love and be loved is a long and often painful one. In the end, it leads unto the very desire of the human heart, for we are made to become as God, to be self-giving. The path to there, from the lead of our egoism to the silver and gold of love, is fraught with the heat of the Refining Fire. The goal, however, is quite worth it. Becoming like Christ, we lose our vampiric fears and rejoice in offering our loving hand out to others, even though it means that we will probably have a nail driven through it.
With all of this having been said, what does it mean for us? What can we do in response to this? Let us look to the figure of John the Baptist, an icon of how we too are called to be “messengers of the covenant.” John’s mission was not one of regal splendor accepted by the established world. Indeed, his figure is marked by his oddity, living in the desert, eating locusts and honey and by the consternation which he aroused in the Herodian establishment. Imprisoned, he experienced the great darkness of our time, doubting if Christ was the One. Like the Western world, he who once believed comes to doubt the foundation of his life’s mission. Even in this, he was not abandoned by Jesus, who affirmed that John did indeed see the Messiah in all of Christ’s works.
John’s perseverance, his unwillingness to succumb despair, must be a model for us. Christ has come, but has not arrived as we would necessarily think he would. So often this Season, we will look upon the Babe in the Manger of Bethlehem. There is consolation in the fact that God has come among men. Indeed, there is warmth in knowing that He has not abandoned us and has come to make us truly as we ought to be, to refine His Image within us. We must not, however, reduce this coming to self-gratifying emotions. We must keep our eyes upon the Lord who rescues us from the snare of our sinfulness. The cross is within the Crib, and we thus see that God comes as He will come; He will not be coerced to fit into our images and categories for Him. The Fire must come down from heaven to consume us and reunite us to God; we do not ascend of our own power. In these final two days before Christmas, let us come before the Lord at the altar and, receiving His Precious Body and Blood, submit ourselves wholly to Christ’s sacrificial love. Let us lay aside our preconceived notions of what it means to be Christ-like. Let us be prepared to listen to whatever His voice calls us to do, that we may truly herald Him and not ourselves. Then, the world will tremble in fear of the Lord as it did at John’s birth, saying, “Surely the hand of the Lord is with you”.