the child and the refining fire

We hear this beautiful tender story of the birth of John the Baptist today, the last day of Advent, from the Gospel of Luke (1:57-66), but first we hear a powerful reading from the prophet Malachi (3:1-4, 23-24) that is a sort of warning about what John the Baptist is going to be like later in life. He is going to be like a refining fire and a fuller’s soap, cleansing the children of Levi! Remember, John makes the people go outside of the Promised Land to the other side of the River Jordan to be baptized and then re-enter, purified, ready to receive the New Covenant.

We have seen in the last few days not only how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies, but also how John the Baptist is. Luke does such a wonderful job of weaving images from the Hebrew prophets into his infancy narrative. The things we heard about Samson the other day from the book of Judges (13:2-7, 23-24), for example, and in the reading from Malachi today––‘He will drink neither wine nor strong drink,’ and ‘in the Spirit and power of Elijah’––were repeated by the angel Gabriel to Zechariah concerning his son about to be born. Even Hannah’s song of praise yesterday, which is pretty much an exact replica of Psalm 112, is not only a foreshadowing of Mary’s Magnificat; it is in response to the story of Hannah giving birth to Samuel (1 Sam 1:24-28), who is also sort of a foreshadowing of John the Baptizer. Then Luke presents all these parallels: John is announced, Jesus is announced; John is born, Jesus is born; Mary sings, Zechariah sings. And the people are amazed at John’s birth and ask the awed question: “What will this child turn out to be?” And later the shepherds are amazed. Luke is at pains to present Jesus and John as parallels.

And there is another parallel too: I’ve heard it said that the wood of the cradle becomes the wood of the cross. John the Baptist is born, it seems, for glory. Indeed the hand of the Lord is upon him. But it’s a terrible thing sometimes for the hand of the Lord to be upon you! Like Jesus’ own kenosis, John’s real glory is going to be that he points away from himself. His real glory was that he decreased so that Christ would increase. His real glory was that he knew he was not the one, but only preparing the way for the one. Even up to the macabre story of his own beheading and being offered up on a tray, his self-offering is presented as a foreshadowing not only of Jesus’ death, but of Jesus’ death as a Eucharistic offering.

‘What will this child be?’ Every time we look at a little child we might be asking that question. It might fill us with hope, with inspiration, with new life, with a reason to go on. But the older I get the more I look on a newborn child, at little children, with sobriety too. And just as much as “What will this child be?” I ask, “What is this child going to have to face? What kind of world are we leaving for this child? What kind of pain and suffering is this child going to have to endure, and will she be able to endure? What kind of tools are we going to offer this child?”

And the older I get the more I am cognizant of the fact that each and every one of us, if we are going to really achieve self-fulfillment, the fullness of our humanity––that is, our participation in divinity––are going to have to decrease after we increase, are going to have to give our lives away in order to save them, are going to have to face a diminishment after, if and when, we reach the height of our personhood. It may only be at the moment of death. It may be when we face an incurable disease. It may be when we are called to service in a way that taps us to the root. It may be when we suffer undeserved persecution, perhaps for the sake of righteousness. If we allow it, this will be the moment of the refiner’s fire, the alchemizing moment in the fire that does not destroy us, but refines us, turns us into pure gold. That will be the moment when we too not only consume the Eucharist, but become Eucharist, broken and spilled for the sake of others, decreasing so that Christ, the Body of Christ, may increase. That too is the alchemizing moment.

This is what our baptism was about and what Eucharist is about. This is what the initiation rites are always about, teaching us so that when that moment comes, when the moment comes for us to decrease, the moment of the refiner’s fire, we will know how to do it, following the example of our Eucharistic Lord who did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at but emptied himself; following the example of John the Baptist who decreased so that Christ could increase. In the same way the Church has us go immediately from celebrating Christmas on Monday to celebrating martyrs on Tuesday and Thursday.

‘What will this child be?’ A better question to ask might be, “Who will we be when the moment comes to be refined by the fire?”

cyprian, 23 dec 17

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