I’m sure I’m not alone in coming away from this morning’s Old Testament reading with the setting from Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears. Those of you who know the aria will doubtless be glad that I am not going to attempt to sing it, but the way Handel sets the text certainly captures the imagination. The opening passage — ‘But who may abide the day of his coming and who can stand when he appeareth’ — smoulders darkly and elegantly. But, at the words ‘for he is like a refiner’s fire’, the music bursts into flame and vividly brings to life the prophet’s blazing simile.
Malachi’s description of God’s presence as like a refiner’s fire conveys great intensity. It takes tremendous heat to refine gold and silver. Silver melts at around 900°C while gold must be heated to 1064°C for it to liquify. So the refiner’s fire is around five times as hot as the oven for your Sunday dinner. I hope you’ll excuse me mentioning such temperatures on a cold and frosty morning in our chilly cathedral, but it helps us to grasp what Malachi was trying to put across. It leaves us in no doubt that, for him at least, the presence of God was a tremendously powerful, all-consuming experience.
It might be difficult at first to see what this has to do with the presentation of Jesus in the temple. If we are looking for connections between today’s Gospel passage and our Old Testament reading, we more readily see them in Malachi’s assertion that ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3:1). It is natural for us Christians, who believe that God was made flesh in Jesus, to read this prophecy as being fulfilled in Luke’s narrative: here we are — the Lord is turning up in his temple in Jesus. But if that is how we read it, the prophecy is fulfilled in such a paradoxical fashion. For the Lord whom Malachi describes as a refiner’s fire comes not as an inferno but as an infant.
Anyone who has spent much time with babies will certainly attest to the fact that they have their own intensity, and sometimes it’s a wonderful intensity, but, unless we are talking about Jack Jack from The Incredibles, it certainly isn’t the same as a refiner’s fire. So, what is the connection?
On Monday, the cathedral’s Poetry Close-Up group met. We gathered to read and discuss TS Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’. It’s a dense and difficult but rewarding piece. At one point, Eliot speaks of how
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Eliot is saying that we face the choice of being burnt up by the fire of judgement or consumed by the ‘pentecostal fire’ of Love. The fire of Love saves us from the fire of judgement.
We are not often comfortable talking about judgement. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a good fit for the inclusive and welcoming community that we aim to be, grounded in God’s love. But we can’t engage honestly with Scripture and avoid judgement for very long. Maybe our understanding of it is still shaped at some level by mediaeval depictions of devils prodding unfortunate sinners into various eternal torments. So we find it hard to see how judgement can co-exist with God’s love, even if that love gives us a way to escape the fire.
While the last judgement is part of the picture that the Bible gives us, and the mediaeval torments aren’t, it is clear from Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph and from our Malachi passage that the biblical writers conceived of judgement as something broader and more immediate. Judgement is part of salvation, not just something that happens to the damned. It is part of being purified, which is ultimately to be made whole.
Simeon recognises in the baby Jesus one who ‘will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver’ (Malachi 3:3). He tells Jesus’ parents how their child is ‘destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ (Luke 2:34–35). A number of commentators read this to mean that some people will fall and others will rise. Other commentators think that the people who are in view here will all fall and then rise because of Jesus. The Gospel writer doesn’t make it clear. But it is evident from this passage that Jesus’ brings both judgement and redemption. The one does not come without the other.
Simeon and Anna both welcome this. They rejoice in the salvation that Jesus will bring to them and their people, a salvation that includes judgement. We can all think of people we might like to face judgement — with the way the world is going at the moment, they are probably queuing up in our minds — but are we able to rejoice in judgement not for others but for ourselves? Silver and gold, once they have been refined, can be worked into something far more beautiful and useful than in their raw state.
- Can we see in judgement the love of God that draws out of us what is detrimental and forms us into a new creation?
- Can we see in judgement the love that makes us whole?
In many ways, this is what we do when we join in the confession. We know that we have fallen so we ask that we may rise.
We must not forget, however, that this refiner’s fire — this great conflagration of judgement and grace — comes to us not in roaring flame but in a helpless and vulnerable baby, unable even to prevent himself from being taken up in a stranger’s arms. This tiny flame, who will grow into ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32, KJV), is passed from hand to hand just as we must pass the light of the good news from person to person, which we do not only through preaching but through concrete, loving action. Jesus, the Light of the World, asks his church to become the light of the world.
‘Who may abide the day of his coming and who can stand when he appeareth?’ The answer is that, through his sacrifice on the Cross — the sign that will be opposed (Luke 2:34) — we all may abide. We all can be Simeons and go in the peace that we long for.
As Eliot says in the closing lines of ‘Little Gidding’:
all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.