The days are getting shorter this month, each day marked by a little less sunlight and a little more night, as we head into the winter season. The shadows are lengthening and earlier than even a few weeks ago. Darkness reaches out sooner and sooner, and releases its grip more reluctantly in the mornings, too. It’s as if, in our northern hemisphere, the world is tensing up, drawing in on itself, like our hearts, fully compressed, waiting to release in the moments between the beats.
This change in the natural seasons reflects the tensed, compressed waiting of the Advent season. We, too, sense that something is happening, that the forces that push back against the light are still growing but might soon reach their peak. We dare to hope that before too long the tide will turn, and the light will once more spread into the deep places of our world, the shadowed corners of our hearts and the hidden regions of our planet, where evil and suffering and sin still cover the land.
In the dark of winter even the smallest light can seem bright beyond its power. A porch light in the summer often means very little to us, but the same light this month signals safety and warmth and home and hope. So it is with Advent, when even the smallest light has the extraordinary ability to pierce the darkness. That’s why, even in this age of electricity, we Christians still light candles in our sanctuaries, why we still have Advent wreaths and Paschal candles with live flames. They remind us that the light does not need to overwhelm us in order to be seen, in order to spark our hope, our peace, our joy, our love, once more.
The light that shines in Advent, though, the True Light, is not made with human hands. It is not at the end of a wick dipped in beeswax any more than it is in the electric current igniting gases in a compact fluorescent bulb. The True Light of Advent is the Divine Light, the uncreated radiance of God’s glory, the piercing holiness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Without this Light all other lights would extinguish. Without this Light, all hopes would be an illusion. Indeed, no ray of hope, of peace, of joy, and of love can exist that does not draw its light from the divine True Light.
This Advent, we see the True Light, the light of God’s glory and holiness, as the light of the refiner’s fire. It is no passive light, and it does not shine merely for our passing pleasure. The Light of the refiner’s fire burns bright and hot, and it extends beyond any possible confines to purify the people of God. Gold, when it is refined, melts at almost 2000 degrees. The Light of the refiner’s fire burns just as hot, which is why the prophet Micah asks, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Do not approach the True Light rashly; if you draw near, you must be prepared to endure its purifying heat.
What is amazing about the Light of this refining fire, what is magnificent and wonderful and mysterious about it, is that it burns with Love. Anger does not fuel the Light of holiness. Hatred does not kindle the fire whose Light we see this Advent. Wrath and indignation and outrage and bile—all the things that seize us and stir us up and make us burn—these have as little in common with the refiner’s fire as darkness with light. The heat of the True Light, the beauty of God’s holiness, is the fire of Love. And the holier we become, the more brightly we shine with the fire of this Love, for our holiness, like God’s, is nothing more and nothing less than Love itself. The True Light is also True Love.
Fires in our world are destructive. They wipe out forests and homes and even neighborhoods and cities. The fire of God’s Love, the Light that shines in our Advent darkness, does melt away the dross of our lives. And, as with any earthly fire, watching those bits melt away can feel like a real loss, like something important about us has disappeared. But God’s Love only seeks to remove the things that get in the way of us loving God and neighbor more fully, more faithfully, more willingly. The bits we lose in God’s fire of Love are the bits that keep the Light of Love from being seen by others.
Earthly fires are only destructive, although life may flourish again in their wake. But the fire of God’s Light is life-giving. It produces far more than it destroys. And when, as Paul says to the Philippians, our love overflows more and more so that in the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, by God’s grace our love produces a full harvest of righteousness, with fruit too plentiful to measure.
Paul prays that the Philippians might pursue this Love, the Love revealed in Christ Jesus, whose coming we wait for, especially in Advent. But the prayer is not restricted to the Philippians. His prayer is for us, too.
This past Wednesday, members from our church offered food and prayers to clients in our Food Pantry. Some of us do not support the pantry. Maybe we’re forgetful. Maybe we don’t like the idea of giving people handouts. Perhaps we’re not sure why Centre is helping “those people.”
Right now, men from our church are sitting in a prison talking to residents about the power and love of Jesus Christ. Many of us would not want to sit with them. Maybe we would be too nervous or scared to enter the prison in the first place. Perhaps we believe we cannot love men who have committed crimes that would put them behind bars.
Tonight, tomorrow, Tuesday, and Thursday night, men and women, old and young, will gather by the dozens in our community building to share openly, in ways that would astonish us even in the most intimate small groups, about their pains and struggles with addictions to alcohol and drugs. Some of us don’t even know where they meet. Maybe we like to pretend those problems don’t really affect our community. Maybe we’d like to believe we could never be that broken, that much in need. Perhaps we’re ashamed of our own addictions, if not to alcohol and drugs, then maybe to a self-centered way of life or to the power of our own money or to the status we’ve worked to achieve.
These, and many other like them, are the impurities the fire of God’s Love seeks to melt away. If we approach the Light this Advent, if we draw closer to Christ in this time of preparation and waiting, we will discover that we are shedding these bits and pieces that dull the Light of Love we are meant to shine in this world. And in their place will rise up the beautiful gifts of Love that come only when we love as God loves us: through Jesus Christ, for the glory and praise of God alone.