Fire and Soap

Last week we embarked on the journey of Advent. We lit the first candle, and we read biblical passages that propelled us into the future to consider the end of time-the apocalypse. Today, our reading sends us in the opposite direction. On the second Sunday of Advent, we are pulled into the distant past to hear the words of the ancient prophet, Malachi. Malachi tells of a figure who is coming "to prepare the way for the Lord." He speaks of a messenger who will purify people's hearts. "God is sending an emissary," writes Malachi, "who comes intending to cleanse your souls."

It all seems a bit presumptuous, doesn't it? In the midst of our pre-Christmas hustle and bustle, the church trots out some primitive prophet who promises us an Advent scrub-down. Is that really what we need right now? You would think that the lectionary could come up with a few encouraging words at this time-assuring us that we will make it through another Christmas, instead of cheekily suggesting that before God arrives, we need a bath.

In Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation" the main character, Mrs. Ruby Turpin, is the domineering spouse of a pig farmer. She is also an appalling racist. She categorizes everybody (black and white, rich and poor) according to an elaborate scale of bigotry that she is constantly adjusting. Worst of all, Ruby Turpin actually views her fondness for making distinctions based on race or class to be a great virtue. Then, one day, while she is sitting in the waiting room of her doctor's office, expressing gratitude that she is neither black nor poor, Mrs. Turpin is assaulted by a young girl who hits her smack in the middle of her forehead with a book appropriately entitled Human Development, and who calls her "a warthog from hell." This accusation overturns Mrs. Turpin's world. For Ruby understands this attack not to be simply the deranged act of an over-stressed teenager; rather, she understands this assault to be a message sent to her by God. Is Mrs. Turpin right? Does God approach us to whack upside the head and call us nasty names?

"Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" asks the prophet Malachi, "For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap." Both of these images are a little frightening. A refiner's fire is the forced-air, white-hot blaze that melts metallic ores and brings their impurities to the surface. Fullers' soap is the strong, lye-based soap used to bleach the impurities from cloth. Fire and soap, says Malachi. Now, I'll be the first to admit that neither of these things seems especially Christmassy, and yet, we are told that the messenger who comes to prepare us for the Lord arrives with flames in one hand and a caustic detergent in the other. He comes to boil off the impurities in our souls and to apply a coarse scrub brush to our spirits. Currier and Ives, Malachi is not. Why, then, have liturgists picked this text for our hearing on this day? Why this concern for purification as we head toward Christmas?

On a hygienic level, we all understand the need to be clean. At dinner times, my maternal grandmother was famous for sending people into the washroom with the phrase, "Cleanliness is next to godliness." A friend with a newborn reported to me that the phrase he often utters to his other children these days is, "You need to wash your hands before you may hold the baby." Being married to a nurse, I can tell you that teaching children about cleanliness is a big deal around our house. Dutifully, we make regular trips to the sink to sluice off grime and germs. We know that physical cleanliness is important for our communal health, for our society's well-being. Yet, today's text prods us to take this thought a bit further, suggesting that this wisdom holds true on a spiritual level. I wonder: Is there a sense in which we need regular purification for our spirits? Do our souls need a shower before Christmas? Perhaps, as we make our way to Bethlehem and the manger this December, the prophet Malachi is simply reminding us that, "We need to wash before we may hold the baby."

When Ruby Turpin arrives home from the doctor's office with a bruise on her forehead, she stomps out to her shed, picks up a hose, and begins washing down her pigs with a forceful stream of cold water. She is angry-angry at God. What right does God have to suggest that she, upstanding citizen, is "a warthog from hell"? As soon as her husband is out of earshot, Ruby looks to the heavens and growls, "What did you send me a message like that for?" "How am I a hog and me both?" "How am I saved and from hell, too?" she asks.

"How am I saved and from hell, too?" It is, I think, one of the most profound theological questions ever posed in American literature. It is also a question that we know quite well at this time of year. How can I spend hours trying to make a good Christmas for my children and then lose my patience with them in an instant? How can I be out shopping for my beloved, one moment, and be putting her down the next? How can I hum Christmas carols and, at the same time, wish that people would stop droning about "the needy"? "How am I saved and from hell, too?" This question testifies to a classic theological formula: God both loves us and judges us. Or perhaps more accurately, because God loves us, God judges us. That is the deep truth that lies at the heart of Malachi's prophecy. Our gracious God so loves us that God's great desire is to see us freed from the grime that covers our souls. God is not saying: "I refuse to let you come in for a visit until you clean up a bit." No. God is used to having our messy selves around. Instead, God is saying: "I am going to help you clean up. I will assist you to throw off the tarnish that prohibits you from truly experiencing the joy that awaits you this season."

A whole sub-genre of movies has arisen in recent years which portray a family making its awkward way through yet another holiday celebration. Sometimes it is Thanksgiving, often it is Christmas; frequently a girlfriend or boyfriend is being brought home for the first time. In nearly every one of these movies the pressures of the holiday gathering opens old family wounds. Now, you would think that we would run from other people's holiday stress, but we don't; these movies are quite successful. Perhaps there is something cathartic in watching somebody else have a dysfunctional holiday. Or perhaps these films remind us that we all carry things into the Christmas season that are less than holy. We approach our family gatherings and company parties burdened with old grudges, hurt feelings and misunderstandings that we simply cannot let go. In fact, instead of coming clean, we have secretly nurtured these wounds, allowing them to coat our souls with gunk. No wonder God breaks out the fire and the soap.

In my high school, ninth-grade students were all required to take a basic writing composition class. There were two teachers who taught these classes: Ms. Simmons and Mr. Cook. You had no choice in selecting the instructor-a computer took care of that bit of providence-but everyone wanted to get Ms. Simmons. It wasn't that the stories about Ms. Simmons were so good; it was that the tales about Mr. Cook were so horrible. Cook assigned more detention than any other teacher. Cook required that you type your papers. Cook made you memorize seemingly irrelevant words. Mr. Cook used a medium-point, red, felt-tip pen, to circle every grammatical error, every misspelling, every flawed metaphor in your meager paragraphs. Mr. Cook was rigid. Mr. Cook was uncompromising. Writing for Mr. Cook was a painful experience. Being in Mr. Cook's class was junior-high hell. Except for the fact that by the end of the semester, what we were producing (while far from brilliant) was recognizable English prose.

Why does God promise to judge us? Is it out of some deranged desire to see us dangle over the flames? No, quite the contrary. God judges us to save us. God seeks to purge our souls of every gunk and dross so that we might have life, and life abundant.

At the close of Flannery O'Connor's story, Mrs. Turpin has a vision (a revelation) as she stands outside by her pigs. She sees a ladder on which people are ascending to heaven, walking together in the groups that she had placed them. She and those like her are bringing up the rear of the procession; they are the "last," following all of those whom they have despised for so long. And O'Connor writes, "They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away."

Sometimes the things that we need purged from our spirits are precisely those aspects of our personality that we are most proud of; even those pieces of us that we consider to be our strengths and our virtues are at risk when the purifier of souls comes to town. This is the promise of the season. The gift of Malachi is to picture for us a God who lays out fire and soap this Advent, a God who wants to cleanse us from everything that would prevent us from standing in awe at the manger.

Why does God do this? Well, one clue might come from O'Connor's story. The name of the girl who throws her book at Ruby Turpin in the doctor's office is "Grace."

Let us pray.

Gracious God, who approaches us with fire and soap this Advent, sear away our old grudges, our hurt hearts, and heal us. Soap away the hardness in our hearts, and wash clean even those attitudes that we think are virtuous, if they stand in the way of us approaching the manger. Give us clean hands to hold the baby. Amen.