Homily for Sunday, December 9, 2018
“The Lord of hosts… is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”
This past week my wife received a Christmas card on the cover of which was a stick-figure girl, crayon in hand, who has just written a letter to Santa:
I am writing to tell you that I have been naughty,
and it was worth it!
You fat, old, judgmental bastard.
While it is true that the book of the prophet Malachi, from which we heard this morning, is about holiness—as we just heard:
The Lord of hosts… will purify the descendants of Levi… until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
… [While it is true that the book of the prophet Malachi is about holiness,] Malachi shows there is a lot more to “holiness” than whether we have been “naughty or nice.” And I want to get back to Malachi and holiness, but first—in addition to my wife’s Christmas card—I want to share a quote from Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. The End of the Affair is set in the Second World War during the Blitz. Morris Bendix, a writer, is having an affair with Sarah Miles, the wife of a civil servant. The two have just made love and he has gone downstairs when a bomb explodes, damaging the house. Sarah runs down to see Morris’ hands sticking out from under a fallen door and presumes him dead. She runs back upstairs and prays, “Make him live! I love him so much. Make him live, and I will give him up.” Morris survives more or less unscathed, but Sarah—rather like Jephthah—has made her vow. Now Sarah had not been much of one for belief in God, and her dilemma is now acute: “God” saved Morris—perhaps even in answer to her prayer?—and for that Sarah is grateful. But at the same time Sarah wants none of it; she would love to forget about God, disregard her vow, and have Morris back as her lover. In her pangs of conscience and her doubts about God, Sarah delivers what is perhaps her best line: “What I want is an ordinary, corrupt human life.”
The desire to live an “ordinary, corrupt human life” is the setting for the book of the prophet Malachi. The Hebrews had recently returned from exile, had recently re-built the Temple and recently re-established its rhythms of daily worship and sacrifice. And Malachi—perhaps himself a priest, but at least a supporter of Temple ritual— was dismayed to see what he perceived to be corruption among the clergy and people. To the people, Malachi writes:
You have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them (3:7)… You have wearied me with your words (2:17)… You are robbing me… in your tithes and offerings (3:8)… “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when… evildoers will be stubble,” says the Lord of hosts (3:18).
And to the priests, Malachi says:
“You have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble… you have corrupted the covenant of Levi (2:8)… If you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name… then I will… curse your blessings… I will rebuke your offspring… spread dung on your faces… and I will put you out of my presence” (2:1–2).
All the people want is “an ordinary, corrupt human life.”
From what we can tell in his book, Malachi had high hopes for the Temple and the restoration. Perhaps Malachi had imagined the Temple mount shrouded in smoke from daily sacrifice “as in the days of old.” It sounds like he had hoped for a well-ordered city, with well-ordered families centered around the worship of God. Malachi probably wanted Jerusalem to be prosperous and respected, the envy of nations all around. It sounds like Malachi had imagined a city that, if the people and priests worshipped rightly, God would protect and would be safe. Malachi had hopes to “make Jerusalem great again,” as it were, and the priests and people were spoiling that vision. Malachi must have felt disappointed. And angry. And wanting to point fingers and to lay blame. And probably fearful and resentful. To be sure, he probably did feel love for God; he probably was filled with hope for this world; he probably did possess a genuine desire for the health of God’s people, who seemed—despite Malachi’s best efforts—to want only and nothing more: “an ordinary, corrupt human life.”
The season of Advent invites us to get in touch with what is inside us. Maybe like Sarah to own our desire for “an ordinary, corrupt human life;” to own that we, too, have struggles with God; to own that sometimes we, too, think “it’s worth it!” And maybe, like Malachi must have, Advent invites us to consider: What are our hopes? What are our ideals? Who is the person we hope (or had hoped) to become? And then to get in touch with disappointment, or anger, or resentment; or love, or hope, or acceptance—whatever we might feel in response to Jesus’ invitation to enter more fully into our lives. These desires, feelings and hopes are all stepping stones on the journey to holiness.
Which is much bigger than whether we’ve been “naughty or nice.” Holiness has to do with getting in touch with desire, with unfolding and growing and becoming the person God created us to be. Holiness has to do with allowing God in and letting go and discovering what may be down the stairs and behind our hearts’ “door.” Holiness has to do with discovering that we are alive! Holiness has to do with love and yearning and hope. Holiness often involves a rhythm of wanting God and then not wanting God. Holiness can involve wanting everything back the way it was before (“as in the days of old”) while at the same time allowing ourselves to be drawn into something new. Holiness frequently involves disappointment, and fear and anger. Holiness has to do with movement, which is often in tension with our desire to stay put. And when we live into this tension—wanting to live an “ordinary, corrupt human life” while at the same time hearing Jesus’ call to follow—we can rest assured that we are on the way, that God is forming something new within and wanting to bring it forth into the world.
I am going to leave us with a quote from Pope Francis, excerpted from his recent exhortation to holiness, “Rejoice and Be Glad.” It speaks of holiness and allowing in and letting go, of unfolding and becoming, of working past fear; it speaks of tension, and—that most clear mark of an increase in holiness—the capacity of being surprised:
Do not be afraid of holiness… Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make [us] less human… It will take away none of [our] energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, [we] will become what the Father had in mind when he created [us], and [we] will be faithful to [our] deepest [selves]… Happiness is a paradox. We experience it most when we accept the mysterious logic that is not of this world, [which is the logic of] the cross… God asks everything of us, yet [God] also gives everything to us. [God] does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfilment… Let us ask the Lord for the grace not to hesitate when the Spirit calls us to take a step forward… In every situation, may the Holy Spirit cause us to contemplate [life] in the light of the risen Jesus. In this way, [we] will not stand still, but constantly welcome the Lord’s surprises. (Gaudete et Exsultate, 32, 34, 174,175, 139)