Part of the message of Advent is that we are given the strength, as Christians, to survive the end of the world.
That’s quite a feat. Here’s a reminder of just how bad it will get, from one of the Advent readings last year:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory (Luke 21:25-27).
Who could possibly survive that? Indeed, Malachi 3:2 asks the question:
But who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can stand firm when he appears?
For he will be like a refiner’s fire,
like fullers’ lye.
The answer comes in the first text, which is from Jesus’ speech to His disciples:
But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand (Luke 21:28).
So while sun is burning out, the mood is turning to blood, and the stars are falling (see Revelation 6:12-13), Christians are encouraged to stand firm, not just in a moral sense, but a literal one. While the earth is crumbling around us and other people are dying just of fright, Jesus tells us to not be afraid. Why?
Of course, there are many ways we can answer this question. We can say that through Jesus we have been saved so there’s nothing to fear. We can say that while the material world may be falling away it’s the spiritual things are what really matter. We can that while all this may be scary, it is but a prelude to the dawn of a new heavens and new earth.
But there is another answer, in addition to those valid ones, that is more personal, mystical, and awe-inspiring.
The key is Malachi 3:2. In speaking of the Second Coming, it describes God’s ‘messenger’ in terms of a ‘refiner’s fire.’
The answer as to why we should not be afraid is that we already know this fire.
Here is Pope Benedict XVI’s explanation in his encyclical Spe Salvi.
Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God (Spe Salvi, 47; Benedict is talking about 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, but the verse is allusion back to Malachi 3:2).
Elsewhere, Scripture is even more explicit in its identification of the fire with Jesus. John seems to elaborate on it in Revelation:
The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest (Revelation 1:14-16).
Fire language is employed at least three times: the ‘fiery eyes,’ the feet like ‘brass refined in a furnace,’ and the face that ‘shone like the sun at brightest.’ Understandably, John himself is frightened and falls to the ground ‘as though dead’ (verse 17).
Of course, Jesus’ appearance is different than what we are used to. But Advent reminds us that He is building up to this. In this life, our great God comes to us in countless small gentle ways. Before we get the mountain-devouring fire of Mt. Sinai, we encounter the burning bush. Before we witness the visible reality of the Incarnation we taste it in hidden form in the Eucharistic bread and wine. And before we meet Him in the fullness of majesty and royal glory, God comes to us in Advent the humility of a newborn.