December 9, 2012

The scriptures for Sunday challenge our popular notion of Advent.  Nothing against jingle bells and blinking Christmas trees.  Joy and making merry has a rightful place in the celebration of Advent.  A "scrooge" attitude is much to be avoided, and the Christmas spirit is a nice antidote for people's tendency toward negativity.  However, a deeper dimension in our Advent reflections can avail for us a more thorough preparation.
Malachi 3:1-4 talks about how to prepare for "the coming of the Lord."  Malachi uses two metaphors to describe how to prepare the way of the Lord—refining gold and "fuller's soap."
There was a field west of Jerusalem called "Fuller’s Field," a place where fullers worked.  Fullers boiled alkali from plant ash in animal fats to make soap.  They would wet, soap, beat, and twist woolen fibers until they were pliable enough to make garments.  The New Testament refers to Christ's white garments as whiter than any fuller can make them.  Malachi uses the process of making and using soap to refer to the testing and tempering of the human soul.  In this way, the soul is made ready for a "pure offering to God." Jeremiah uses the metaphor of a potter at a potter's wheel spinning and molding clay to be refined in the oven.  Like refining gold, using fuller's soap, and the molding of pots, the struggles and stresses of life shape us for God's purposes.  This is a different way of thinking about our troubles.
These Old Testament images form the background for the stories of John the Baptist (e.g., Luke 3:1-6).  John offers a "baptism of repentance" as the way to prepare for God's coming.  Luke's text alludes to the prophesy of Isaiah where God will make straight the path; every mountain will be lowered and every valley lifted up to make straight the path. 
Interesting: the path from exile in Babylon to the Holy Land leads straight back to "Fuller's Field," just outside of Jerusalem.  Here is the best place to string our lights and put up our Christmas trees.