Chastening and Purification by Edward R. Burns

Christmas Day, and the following Feast of the Epiphany, often go by so fast they can seem like a blur. The church is wise to prolong the season by celebrating liturgically a number of Sundays after the Epiphany until we reach the beginning of Lent. This extended period of Epiphany gives us an opportunity to absorb at a more humane pace the significance of this great event when God entered into our lives in the form of a child.

Christmas is a feast day that has universal appeal, especially to children, or, as someone has said, to the ever-rejuvenating child in each one of us. It is a day that celebrates innocence, vulnerability, dependency, simplicity, and peacefulness, qualities that characterize the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. These are the very qualities and virtues that Jesus later lived in his own adult life. They are also the qualities and virtues that ran directly counter to the behaviors and attributes that sustained the secular and religious power structures into which Jesus was born. In this regard, the birth of Jesus represents not only the revelation of God’s mercy and intimacy with our humanity; in the same moment, it represents a judgment of God upon the culture of those times, and upon ours as well. Jesus would later suffer great affliction because of his fidelity to the conditions and vulnerabilities of his own humanity. So, too, would his mother and any of his later disciples who would choose to remain faithful to the life and teachings of this newborn baby.

I’m sure we have all seen, from time to time, bumper stickers and posters with the words “Put Christ back into Christmas.” This sentiment is usually expressed by people who are disturbed by the excessive commercialism that invariably accompanies the holiday season. I think it would be useful for us to create a bumper sticker that says, “Put an adult faith back into Christmas.” This is what is required of us if we are to appreciate more completely and more deeply the meaning and demands of this season’s revelations of God to humankind.

Several Scripture lessons spell out in various ways and descriptions some of the more serious implications of this astonishing event of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. They describe each in their own manner what can be expected for one who comes to believe in and live according to this story of a God who became human.

The scene described in the gospel of Luke (2:22-35) takes place eight days after the birth of Jesus. It was customary in Jesus’s time for Jewish parents of a firstborn son to present their child to the Lord in the Temple at Jerusalem. The presentation ceremony represented a prayer of thanksgiving to God and was accompanied by a sacrificial offering of some kind: “a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.” These two young parents, Mary and Joseph, were probably very proud and excited as they approached the Temple carrying their newborn son. But they were in for some surprising words from Simeon, an elderly Israelite who had been promised in a vision that before his death he would see with his own eyes the long-awaited Messiah. Simeon’s blessing must have both thrilled and frightened these parents, because his words were full of both promise and foreboding: Behold, this child is set for the fall and the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against . . . And, in a specific way, Simeon’s warning to Mary was especially threatening and worrisome: A sword will pierce through your own soul . . .

Surely, both Mary and Joseph must have wondered what these words could mean. We don’t know how they reacted to this strange encounter with Simeon. However, one thing is certain: Simeon’s blessing must have quickly dispelled from their minds any ideas they may have had that the future life of this child would be an easy one. His life, in fact, was to be judgment upon Israel as well as a source of Israel’s consolation, a call to repentance as well as a call to glory, a stumbling block to many as well as a light of revelation to the nations. In Simeon’s blessing upon the parents of Jesus, we can begin to appreciate the realism and demands a gospel faith requires, and the chastening that accompanies a life of faithful discipleship and commitment to this child.

Another passage from the book of Malachi is surely familiar to anyone who has ever listened to or sung Handel’s Messiah. Malachi writes: For he is like a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord (3:3). These words could be read as the warning of a threatening and vengeful God, but I do not interpret them in this manner, nor do I believe they were conceived with this intent. They are, rather, words of chastening and purification, not words of destruction. We all stand in need of such chastening and purification, both as individuals and as a corporate people. In fact, as strange as it may sound, we should be eager to be chastened and purified by our God so that the deep truths of our individual lives and our human solidarity with each other might emerge more clearly in God’s presence and in our own awareness. What God sees in the hearts of each of us is “gold and silver,” and he is eager to help us discover this in ourselves. We need God’s help to be purified and freed from the drab and dross of our lives, from our idols and illusions, from our pretensions and the false images that we hold of ourselves. We need a refining fire in our lives so that we may be pleasing to the Lord and to ourselves as well, not with the smugness of self-sufficiency, but with a disposition of gratitude for having been created and redeemed by such a loving God.

A third passage of Scripture, this time taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, describes the incredible lengths to which our God has been willing to go in order to bring us to himself: Since the children share in flesh and blood, so he himself likewise partook of the same nature (2:14). This is a one-sentence description of the Christmas story all over again. It is this author’s way of saying the same thing that Saint John says at the preface to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with god, and the Word was God . . . and the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us.” The author of Hebrews goes on to say about this Word made flesh: He had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people . . . for because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (2:17-18). Put simply, God saves us and sanctifies us by becoming one of us, and by accepting unto death the difficult conditions of a broken world and a flawed humanity. This is the message of Christmas and Epiphany now spelled out for us in adult terms.

If Simeon warns Mary about a sword that will pierce her soul, and Malachi speaks of a refining and purifying process that Yahweh will bring about among the sons of Levi, what are some of the forms in which this chastening process, this piercing pain in our souls, are likely to take as we attempt to live an adult gospel faith? Several examples come to mind as I ask these questions, but I believe the answers all come under the form of what can be called disillusionment. By disillusionment, I mean the painful loss of a sense of self-sufficiency based on an honest, though perhaps difficult acceptance of the limitations that are built into the very structure of our humanity.

John Calvin, founder of one of the main branches of Protestantism in the 16th century, once commented that human beings are constantly manufacturing idols in their heads. We continue to do the same now in the 21st century. We tend to cling to our myths and illusions and “fantasies of omnipotence,” of unrestricted freedoms, of secure control over our own personal and national destinies, of our unlimited powers and invulnerability, of our exaggerated notions of self-reliance and independence. It is hard, painful to our egos and our sense of self, to yield up these idolatrous images of ourselves for images that are more realistic and more humane. It can be a harrowing experience, a chastening experience, to discover that all our strivings to attain these unrealistic states of existence are futile, exhausting, and doomed to failure. But none of this need be so; nor will it be so for those who are willing to embrace these limits without fear.

William Lynch, SJ, once described this chastening of our humanity as “a progressive march out of the shadows into truth,” in which we experience “our broken but steady movement out of the omnipotent self-image of the child into the finite but real self-image of the adult.” In order to be pleasing to the Lord, we all stand in need of such chastening, such purification, such healthy disillusionment.

Something of this process of disillusionment must occur for each of us who wish to claim for ourselves an adult Christian faith. We must be willing to live in a world where swords of sorrow may sometimes pierce our souls. We must learn to let ourselves be chastened and purified by God into the gold and silver of Christ’s humanity, which has now become our own. That is the story of the Incarnation, the story of the Word who became flesh and embraced us in the limitations and mortality of his and of our own humanity. ♦

Edward R. Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families. He is the author, most recently, of Learning to Love the Ordinary: Poems for Sacred Times, Thin Places, and Everyday Lives, available here.

Image: Fernando Gallego, Epiphany, c. 1480.

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