When I was in high school, I worked in the press room of the Ponca City News, which at the time still used linotype machines. My job was to gather up all the used lead each day, melt it down in a huge cauldron, burn off the matting that had adhered to the metal, skim off the residual dross and then make lead bars by pouring out the freshly tested and purified lead alloy into forms.
The metal was now clean, purified by fire. I, by contrast, was now filthy dirty. When I got home, the first thing I would do was take a shower. Water can clean the outer surface of things, but fire can go below the surface to purify the whole substance of metal, both inside and out. Clean is not the same thing as pure. You can take a shower and still be filthy on the inside.
In today's Gospel, John the Baptist baptizes — cleanses — with water. People voluntarily confessed their sins, and then John symbolically cleansed them of their sins in the water of the Jordan river. But in doing this, he cautioned them that they must truly have firm purpose of amendment. This outer cleansing must be accompanied by inner purification if it's to mean anything.
After John will come Jesus, whose baptism will purify — not just cleanse but purify — with fire, and this purification will be involuntary. Today's Gospel says Jesus will test our mettle, purify the elements of our being, burn off the vices that still adhere to us, skim off the residual dross and then mold us who have been tested and purified into the form he intends us to become.
The result is that those who still have enough mettle in them to be reworked with will be refashioned into saints through Jesus' thoroughly purifying baptism of fire. Once we test out fully purified by adversity — by embracing the cross with sacrificial love — we take our place in God's kingdom of heaven, sharing fully in the fruits of Jesus' victory. Those, however, whose lives are mostly dross will simply be skimmed off and thrown away to spend an eternity forever separated from God. As Jesus says in today's Gospel, "The chaff he will burn in unquenchable fire."
So on this Second Sunday of Advent, we know none of us would freely choose the adversities that come our way and even Jesus dreaded taking up his cross. But Jesus did far more than just resign himself to the inevitable, he embraced his cross with love, and we are to embrace our crosses with love too.
If that cross is what our Father wants for us, then we should pray to learn to love it. By embracing his cross with love, Jesus also embraces us with love, we who have been redeemed by that thoroughly purifying baptism of fire that Jesus endured and then kindled for us on Calvary.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily at Advent Lessons and Carols at the Cathedral of St. Andrew Dec. 4.
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