Both the reading from Malachi and the Gospel reading about the birth of John point to a certain purification of desire that is part of the spiritual process. Too often, when we think of the purification of desire, our culture runs to something like sexual desire and its transformation. But here in these two readings we see a different kind of purification that is not about sex, nor is it about a lessening or a holding back of desire, but rather about a growth in understanding as to what our desires mean.
The author of Malachi writes,
“And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire….
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver.”
Malachi points to the people of Israel’s desire for the Lord. Yet he suggests that when the Lord comes to the people, it will be more than they can withstand. In part this is simply in keeping with the idea that God is a God of mystery beyond our capacity to know or to see, a God whom Moses knows at first through a burning bush and later who “sees” God, but who only sees the back side of God lest he be annihilated by the experience. But the words on the purification of our desires like gold and silver point to the idea that perhaps the difficulty in seeing God is not with God but with us. We’re easily distracted by other concerns and desires, whether getting ready for the holidays by buying gifts and running too many errands, or perhaps more deeply not always identifying the nature of our longing as longing for the Lord. What we find as we delve more deeply into our longing is that this longing is not only FOR God, but also that this longing is, itself, God within us. Our desires for God is already the God in each of us striving to meet the God in others. Then the purification of desire is about coming to see and to understand this longing–for–God more fully.
The Gospel reading on the birth of John and the effect of his birth on Zechariah shows us the transformative nature of this purification and recognition. The incarnation touches not only Mary, but many others through a kind of cosmic reverberation, even before Jesus is born. Jesus is in Mary, who goes and meets Elizabeth, whose child leaps within her when the two women touch. Elizabeth’s pregnancy transforms Zechariah, who goes from doubt and silence to exuberant celebration. John comes to prepare the way for others who will be transformed by Jesus. The effect of the incarnation is like light reflected from person to person to person, as if each one were a mirror whose reflected light touches another whose light goes on….
Zechariah’s neighbors are afraid, because in a way, what can be more fearful than recognizing how very close the Lord already is to us, within us, within the person sitting next to you, within the homeless person we pass on the street or the relative who has those unpalatable political views. But another response is the response of joy, to embrace our desires and to know God’s love and presence is already right here, among us, that God comes to fulfill our desires. Emmanuel.