As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more of a fan of Advent rather than Christmas. The latter has taken on a veneer of overindulgence, of celebrating for the sake of celebration. We don’t tend to see ourselves standing in the shadows of the stable, in awe of the manger. Rather, we start to see ourselves as beneficiaries of the custom of the magi; that is, the concept of gift giving somehow becomes a glowing balm for the pains of Mary’s travail. Everything is alright now that Jesus is born. We just take the Saviour’s birth for granted, with many of us, sadly, not taking the time or effort to sit in that space before the holy birth. That almost blind anticipation, the spiritual equivalent of adrenaline, focusing those who paid heed to the signs in the heavens towards, let’s face it, a modest change, but with seismic repercussions for the rest of time. We don’t play a game of Tetris with the wall already built, we form the meaning of the experience from the anticipation of each falling block, knowing that while success brings that kind of aesthetic effervescence of a completed row or pattern, the result could go either way, depending on our strategies and reaction time. We have to have faith in a higher intelligence, and use what we have to make the best use of the time and space we have in difficult or stressful periods. In other words, the meaning we draw from our spiritual life comes predominantly from our time spent in the Furnace.
The Three Young Men in Daniel chapter 3, Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, find themselves in the Furnace because they refuse to worship the King of Babylon and all he represents. Hedonism, paganism, self-importance, material success, colonisation. They are prisoners in a gilded cage, cared for by a narcissist. Yet they refuse to renounce their faith, and so find themselves in the fire for their insolence. And they sing. There’s that whole apocryphal passage wherein they chant that God is ‘worthy to be praised and exalted forever’. They don’t panic, they sing and they dance, and they find themselves joined by the One who made them, and who will be their salvation. And maybe they don’t even see him. The King of Babylon sees the fourth figure, but there’s no mention that the other three are even aware that the answer to their prayers has taken human shape.
And this is the space of Advent. Time in the Furnace. The symbols of Christmas are commercialised and mass produced by even the most secular corners of society. Because let’s face it, it’s a nice, gentle story. The manger bit is, anyway. But these symbols, these tropes are taken for granted. Significant aspects, like the Annunciation or the flight to Egypt are sidelined. Even John the Baptist is reduced to this esoteric, almost lovable eccentric whom the world tolerates rather than understands. And yet his purpose, to be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, shows that it is fact the world that’s gone insane, not the man in camel’s hair, eating locusts. The world has become the kindling for the furnace, through its ignorance, devouring those who built and stoked it. Our obsession with shaping ourselves rather than letting God shape us, consumes us. Symbols become just symbols, and all spiritual depth evaporates. Christmas becomes a custom followed blindly by those who may still walk in darkness, refusing to see the great light. The Word ceases to be made Flesh.
And yet the wilderness begs for more voices to cry out in it. The Furnace begs for dancers. The manger begs for those willing to wait amongst the shadows and straw. The Flesh begs for the Word to come and dwell amongst it. Celebration need not take the form of an anomaly in the pattern, but something that is woven in consistently; something to go hand in hand with anticipation, and with gratitude. The Furnace was never going to be the end for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, it was neither a conclusion nor aberration to their lives, but a natural part of what they learned and taught. Their graceful acceptance of suffering was met with grace. An understated yet spectacular example of the Word of God made Flesh. He met them in their time of need because they inhabited their suffering, rather than making it a tool for sympathy or vulnerability. The same way Mary inhabited her plight as theotokos, God-bearer, knowing that her life stood to be ruined or even destroyed. Anticipation becomes a joint exercise between Word and Flesh in order to bring salvation into being, into a form we can both touch and revere.
There has been so much suffering over the last few years, and we are wearied by it as a species because we simply do not have the patience or faith to inhabit it. We are burned by the Furnace rather than dancing inside it. That is, worship itself become anomalous, theology itself becomes anomalous, rather than being a fundamental part of life. It reflects a distinct lack of gratitude and an inability to love holistically. By inhabiting our worship, our work, our mission of belief in action, we started to discover that Christmas need not be confined to a single day. By preparing the way of the Lord each day, we will find reason to celebrate his coming. And gratitude, thankfulness will become as reflexive as breathing. Advent prepares us to prepare, to make preparation part of our lives. The glitz and glamour will fade from celebration, but not its meaning. The Furnace will lose its spectacle, but not its place for the refining of new metal. Because we stop being spectators of its destructive purpose, and become instrumental in its creative one. Let us lurk in the shadows by the manger, while Jesus receives his gifts, not we ourselves. Because when the furnace is at full heat, then Jesus will reveal himself as his gift to us.
David Kerr is an ordained minister in the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta, northeast Victoria. He has trained in theology, media communications and social theory, and has been a practicing visual artist since 2016. David is also the Curator of our Gallery. If you would like to submit your own artworks and/or reflections, please be in touch with David: firstname.lastname@example.org