Fire has been in the news a lot lately. This year’s wildfires in California have been the worst on record. The Camp Fire alone burned more than two hundred thirty-four square miles, killed seventy-seven people, and consumed the entire town of Paradise (now ironically named) displacing a population of twenty-six thousand. One viral video of a couple fleeing Paradise, driving down a street with sheets of flame rising on either side of the car, looked like something from Dante’s Inferno. Fire destroys utterly. It leaves only ash in its wake.
That destruction is why fire has been used as a means of choice, both metaphorically and literally, for punishment throughout human history. The model for hell utilized in scripture was Gehenna, the smoldering garbage dump in the Hinnon Valley outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem. Gehenna, always within sight of the city, perpetually belched flame and gas. As an image of eternal punishment it was, thus, a powerful deterrent to bad behavior. As this-worldly punishment, there have been times when those in authority used fire as the sentence for religious offenses such as heresy. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer himself, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, was gruesomely burned at the stake by Queen Bloody Mary in 1556.
The awesome destructive power of fire and its association with punishment have led us to fear it. The mere whiff of smoke, and we scramble to find its source and stamp it out. We may be perplexed, therefore, when today the prophet Malachi tells us that God will send a messenger ahead of the nativity, someone who is to ready us for the coming of Christ, and that that one will be like “a refiner’s fire” whose very goal is to burn us. How can that be good news of any kind? How is that a herald we’d want to receive? Oughtn’t we to stamp out that message as soon as we detect it, and go on with our lives lest we be surrounded by sheets of flame?
Last summer my family and I visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to the grand house, the estate includes, among other things, a working blacksmith’s shop. I’d never seen a blacksmith at work before. He told us that the temperature in his forge was more than one thousand degrees. The heat from that fire could be felt fifteen feet away. Its pulsating, potentially destructive power was obvious and ominous. The blacksmith took a small, dull ingot of metal, and as he spoke to us he periodically thrust the ingot into the fire. In the meantime, he would hammer the lump of metal in a manner that looked to my eyes like nothing other than mindless pounding. But as we watched, that dull metal began to take on shape. And twenty minutes after the blacksmith began, it had become a delicate leaf, with striations and veins and a luster that seemed to emerge from nowhere. What had been an opaque and formless lump was a thing of light and beauty. Though I watched it happen with my own eyes, it seemed almost miraculous.
In our world of offices and service industries and virtuality, we’ve lost skills such as those of the blacksmiths and metallurgists, and consequently we’ve lost an understanding of the refiner’s fire. An ingot is thrust into a refiner’s fire until it reaches a molten state, and then the dross of impure metals is skimmed from the top while the precious ore remains, and in the case of steel, stronger than it was before. The refiner’s fire is not a fire of destruction, in other words, but of purification, and strength, and wholeness. It is the difference between the slag and the leaf, between darkness and light.
There is one other thing to remember about fire, which we see in the springtime after a fire has consumed an area of land. Though it reduces to ash, fire also fertilizes and makes way for new green shoots to grow from the soil.
And in these ways the Advent messenger is like the refiner’s fire. Just as we’ve lost the skills of the blacksmith, we’ve nearly lost the spiritual wisdom that tells us, forthrightly, what we must do if we are to encounter, and embody, and be redeemed by the birth of grace into our world. Within ourselves, in the depth of our very souls, we must plunge into the foundry and meet the refiner’s fire, so that the dross in us can be skimmed away and the precious ore of our essence be made stronger and lustrous. But what does that look like in a human life?
Before he was famous, the brain scientist David Eagleman, well known to this cathedral, wrote a little book entitled Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. The book consists of forty of Eagleman’s ideas of what the afterlife might be like, ranging from the whimsical to the terrifying. One account he titles “Mirrors,” and in it he says of us, “When you think you’ve died, you haven’t actually died. Death is a two-stage process [and you’re not completely dead yet…In life] you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you were at seeing yourself…So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voicemail. [But now, in this first stage of the afterlife,] all the people with whom you’ve ever come into contact are gathered. The scattered bits of you are collected, pooled, and unified. Mirrors are held up in front of you. Without the benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time. And that is what finally kills you.”[i]
I suppose that’s both whimsical and terrifying: To look into the mirror honestly; to allow ourselves to see not our pretended motives, rationalizations and justifications for the things we have sometimes done or who we have sometimes been, but rather to see our true reflection from the perspective of the others with whom our lives have intersected, both intimately and casually. That would burn. It would sear. It might destroy. But it might not. If we are people of faith, if we trust in the God who made us in love, then that mirror would not be the fire that consumes Paradise but rather the refiner’s fire. An inward acknowledgement, deep in the foundry of the soul, of who we have been at our best but also at our very worst would allow us to see the dross for what it is and skim it away, preserving the silver, and gold, and steel which is our essence—the very image of God within us—which has always been beautiful and precious to God. Such fire is not punishment. It is not hell, and it is not forever. It is, rather, the unavoidable path from the slag to the leaf, from dullness to luster, from darkness to light.
It is also what makes room deep within us for the incarnation of God, for the birth and growth of the Christ who is coming. That is why the messenger comes now, so that the dross can be skimmed, the ash blown away, and new shoots of redemption take root within us when Christ comes.
This is hard work. It is, indeed, easier to stamp out this message while the flame is only a flicker, to ignore it and carry on with our lives. To heed the refiner’s message and encounter the refiner’s fire—to look upon the dross of our lives honestly—requires owning things about ourselves we’ve never owned before. It requires taking responsibility. It requires mending relationships when we can. And it requires valuing that which is truly precious while letting go of that which dulls us to love and grace in the world. We can plunge into this forge, but will we? The work is hard, and it begins with it some pain, but it also brings with it, as Malachi says, the promise of Christ, “the covenant in whom we delight.” It refines us so that we become the very manger in which Christ can be born.
[i] Eagleman, David. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 43-44.