During Advent I enjoyed a performance of Handel’s Messiah–music for Advent and Christmas, but music also relevant to Lent and Easter. While enjoying this past year’s performance, I noted again how well Handel put this oratorio together. Although I have no complaints about his abilities as a composer, it is his use of texts I find most striking as he so freely mixes the genres of the Old and New Testaments. Old Testament prophecy, poetry, Pauline analogies, praise: all are woven beautifully, even brilliantly, together. In particular that odd passage from Malachi 3 leaps out:
“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.
This text is properly arresting for us because too often we forget two very important, closely related, truths about God’s nature and our own. We come to worship each week and we invoke God’s name–we call for his appearing–but we do it naively. Malachi helpfully reveals one aspect of what we are really asking and so forces the question, “But who can endure the day of his coming?”
There is a well-known scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe where the children hear for the first time about Aslan the Lion:
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (Harper- Collins, 1994, pp. 79-80).
Those words are reminiscent of Revelation 6, itself an awful echo of Malachi 3:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
When we ask God to come to us, to be with us, to dwell in us, we should know who it is we are asking for. We are the captives longing to be set free, but we also need to be kept safely behind bars. We are the exiles aching for home, but we are also the treachery that keeps us in exile. We are the sick desperate for healing, but we are also the disease that destroys health and joy.
When we are in the presence of God, we may well experience God as a refining fire, yet most of us don’t really want that sort of refining. Flannery O’Connor, in her short story “Revelation,” describes an epiphany that comes to Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a white, middle-class Southern farm woman who is enormously self-righteous and inordinately pleased to be herself. One evening, near sunset, she has a clarifying, purifying vision:
There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk… A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash… bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself…had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. They were marching behind the others with great dignity… [y]et she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away (X. J. Kennedy, ed., Literature, HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 355-56).
A refiner’s fire, indeed. What virtues of ours will be burned away before that re- fining fire has finished its work? There is also, we know, a word of assurance: Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand before the wrath of the Lamb? Only those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Worthy is that Lamb who saves us, but he comes with fire in his eyes. It’s the fire we need, it’s the fire we ask for, but we should call it to ourselves with holy seriousness, and with the humility that can accept the purifying it must bring.