|Moses before the Burning Bush|
O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
(Second of the Great O Antiphons before Christmas)
Fire: it can warm and it can burn. It is one of the essentials for anything beyond the most primitive existence, but it can also destroy us. The Great O Antiphon for this day recalls Moses’ encounter with God in the Burning Bush, as well as the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, after Moses had passed through the fire, smoke, and darkness surrounding its summit. Again and again, from the fiery sword of the cherub at Eden’s gate, through the fires of the Temple’s altar and the fire of the Spirit’s presence among the Disciples on Pentecost, to the fire which finally consumes all that is evil in Revelation, fire forms part of our faith's vocabulary.
Advent, with its twin themes of preparing for Christ’s coming at Bethlehem and again at the End of the Ages, is both a season of joy and a time of burning clarity. In secular society, it is a frantic time, often marked by anxiety and a temporary leave of one’s senses in spending, doing, eating, and drinking far too much. But, for the Christian, it is a season of coming to one’s senses on the deepest level. Illuminated by the light of God’s presence in the story of Creation, Fall, Plan of Salvation, Redemption in Christ (as marvelously expressed in the annual Lessons and Carols service), we are awakened from the delusions and alienation from truth that so pervade our world. No compromise can be made between God and delusion. The fire of Advent both lights up this fact, and purges away the delusion in its healing flame.
What emerges, St. Paul reminds us, is a person who has been chastened: chastened, but also freed.
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3)
God’s purpose in all of this is not to destroy us; it is to awaken us to what is real, to what is in his holy life-giving will, to what is holy and eternal. This, alone, will give us the peace and joy we seek. The delusions we accumulate master us, enslave us, and lead us to woe. When we respond to God’s grace in Christ, we begin the process of receiving our freedom.
That journey may take some time, but the decisive step is when we turn to our God and pray: “Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm!” as does this antiphon. Then the fire of God—a fire of love and renewal—can burn away the dross and reveal the glory of the Image of God buried within us.