Readings: Malachi 3:19-20; Psalm 97; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-13; Luke 21:5-19
The Christian Bible re-ordered the books of the Hebrew Scriptures placing the prophets rather than the writings as the final part of the 'old testament'. It means the Christian Old Testament ends on a note of hope and expectancy, looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, to God's visitation of his people in a new moment and to the judgement and salvation that will come with that visitation.
More specifically the Old Testament ends with the prophecy of Malachi from which we read a short passage today. Fire is coming, the prophet says. For those who have done evil it is a fire that will judge and cauterize the evil. For the just, and in particular the oppressed and the poor who are yet to be vindicated, this fire is the sun of justice bringing healing in its rays.
Across the Christian centuries those reflecting on the message of the scriptures have seen that there is just this one fire on the great and terrible day of the Lord, the fire of love and truth that will be experienced differently by different individuals, according to each one's spiritual and moral circumstances and situation. So the Irish philosopher-theologian of the 9th century, John Scottus Eriugena, and so also the 15th century Italian mystic of purgatory, Catherine of Genoa: one fire, experienced by the arrogant in one way and by the humble in another.
Saint Augustine writes in one of his sermons about this two-edged character of the fire of God's Word: 'The Word of God is the adversary of your will', he says, 'until it can become the author of your salvation. As long as you are your own enemy, you also have God's Word as your enemy; be a friend to yourself, and you agree with it'.
For Dante Alighieri everything is the work of God's love. All sin is a pathology of love, love misdirected, love insufficient, love excessive and disproportionate, love incomplete. 'Do you believe in purgatory', a priest was asked recently. 'I am counting on it', was his answer, which many of us do as we get older. The purging and sifting of motivation and fidelity, the removal of evil desires, the redirection of love, the refining fire of divine justice - all of this is painful, all of it included in the gathering in of redemption's harvest, all of it at root the work of an infinite Love.
The readings this Sunday are in tune not only with the time of the year, at least in the Northern hemisphere, but also with the situation of the world. November is the dark end of the dying year, a time when we remember the dead and ponder on death, the disorder and disintegration that faces each of us individually, the chaos and disaster of our life's ending which draws ever closer. But also in the moment of history through which we are living it seems there is much disorder and disintegration, political and cosmic, or at least there is in many people a fear of those things. New leaders arise who promise protection against chaos and disaster but whose promises seem to others to invite those very things.
What are we to do in such circumstances? We are to go on quietly working and earning the food that we eat, Paul says to the Thessalonians. Whatever comes about is an opportunity to bear witness, Jesus says in the passage from Luke's gospel that we read today. What holds it all together, beneath and beyond any chaos or disintegration, any disaster or catastrophe, is the mighty arm of God. Do not prepare your defence, Jesus says, because you will be given, by Jesus himself, an eloquence and a wisdom that none will be able to resist or contradict.
Be a friend to yourself, Augustine wrote, and then the Word of God is your friend, your wisdom, and your salvation.We have been entrusted with the Word of truth and love, to speak it in our words and to witness to it in our actions. We do not have access to the whole picture, not even to the day on which our personal world will dissolve in death. But we have confidence in the mighty and gentle arms of the One who has carried His people through countless disasters, across countless years, through countless reconciliations. Those arms, now stretched on the cross, embrace the world and its history completely. That heart, opened before our eyes, burns with a love that brings judgement, yes, and painful reconstruction, but it is the Sun of Justice, the fire Jesus came to ignite on earth, the fire of God's love and friendship. If God has befriended us, we can befriend ourselves and so open up to the healing and saving power of God's Word. We can be what we are called to be, bearers of the divine fire, who will set the world ablaze.