As the wildfires of Southern California rage near our monastery in Santa Barbara, I can no longer escape the message of our Advent lectionary. For years now I have been impatient with that lectionary. The first Sunday of Advent begins not with Mary’s ‘yes’ to stoke our own enthusiastic longing for the divine child, but instead with the destruction of the world.
Until the fourth Sunday of Advent (Christmas Eve this year), that’s pretty much the tone of the readings: keep awake, the Lord is coming, repent, return, prepare, look out for the fire that’s about to consume the world. We long for a savior, yes, for the coming of the Word made Flesh. But do we really have any sense of what that coming might look like? This Advent I’ve paid attention to the readings in a different way. I hear the coming of the Word in the context of Amos:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (5:18-20)
Jesus himself says, in Luke, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (12:49)
The coming of the Lord among us is not some cheerful pageant, nor an addition to our material or spiritual comforts. It is as difficult a word as the word of the Cross. Because, as the Advent lectionary underlines again and again, for the Lord to come, we must first be incinerated with all of our illusions, idols, and obsessions. We must be baptized with fire. The rust must be burned away.
In certain places in the natural world, as in Southern California, when enough dry debris has accumulated, a fire starts, in order to burn up the dross and renew the landscape. Like John the Baptist in the wilderness, fire prepares the way for new life and new growth, removing that which no longer contributes to the health and flourishing of the ecosystem. It is not an evil to be fought, but a part of the natural rhythms of the earth by which the balance of the ecosystem is maintained and renewed.
The increasingly destructive fires of Southern California are an indictment of our insistence on living outside the balance of the natural world. I don’t mean an indictment specifically of the people who live in the fire’s path. No, these fires are an indictment of our entire way of life as a species across the globe, a species who insists that bigger and more is better and that denies the human impact on the world ecosystem (a denial that delays fire-quenching rains perhaps indefinitely).
These fires are also an indictment of our stratified social systems. The wealthy residents of Monticeto and BelAir, after all, have insurance and the financial resources to rebuild their homes after the fire abates. The poor of Southern California do not, and on them the devastation of the fire will remain. ‘And those who have nothing, even what they have shall be taken away.’
I have heard a lot of condemnation of this particular fire, and of what we call ‘natural disasters.’ I hear the plea of one heart to another, the caring and the love we have for those who lose their homes. That caring is good and godly. And, at the same time, these so-called disasters are also the planet’s wake-up call, like the voice of John crying out ‘Repent!’ ‘Wake up!’ ‘Pay attention!’
Can we begin to deepen and expand our experience of God so that we welcome the wholeness of God into our lives? Can we begin to see that destruction is not the opposite of creation, but is, instead, one face of creation? God destroys in order to create something new.
The truth is that most of us love our idols and illusions too much to let them go willingly. God must destroy them, burn them and us with the unquenchable fires of divine love in order to set us free. And free primarily from ourselves.
This process is not comfortable, and it is not painless. In my admittedly limited experience of God, God has little interest in my comfort. Instead, God desires to burn away all that keeps me chained: my over-identification with my success in worldly terms, my fear of my own anger, the limiting stories of my past, my personas, and my illusions of who and how God is.
God desires to set us free collectively, as well: free from our addiction to oil, our stubborn insistence on our divine mandate to exploit the natural world, our robbing of the poorest among us, our commodification of non-white persons and women, and our hunger for violence and rape. This freedom is not the kind you find on a Hallmark card.
Can we pray dangerously? Pray for God to come however God needs to come to set us free, totally free, without condition? Can we long for a baptism by fire? Or, if not long for the fire, can we, at the least, see God in that fire when it comes, as it inevitably will? Can we resist the all-too-human urge to rebuild our idols once they have been burned up?
As Jesus asks the paralytic, do we truly want to be free?