“…Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.” Malachi 3: 2-4
Each year, on Christmas Eve, our guests would begin to arrive at my parents’ house around 5:30. The list always included my cousins and their children, the people who worked for my family and their children, and the occasional stray Swedes who found themselves far from anything familiar. It all happened the same way, year after year. Soon after everyone had arrived, the children sat down for dinner while the adults visited. Then, just as dusk became night, either my mom or my dad would ask the question that filled us with awe and terror: “Niños, it sure is getting dark. I wonder if Farbror Jultomten has gotten lost? Would you help us look for him?”
My parents had built their house on a hilly 2 acres outside of Cali. Our house sat on one hill, then the property dipped down in the middle to a small brook and went back up another hill. Every year, all the children would head down one hill and up the other, to the farthest corner of the property where we would all call for Farbror Jultomten over and over again, growing most worried about his health and ability to find us. And then, once again my mom would urgently call us back: “Niños, come, come and see”. You wouldn’t believe how fast those little legs churned down one hill and back up the other to arrive, panting, just as Farbror Jultomten was making his magnificent entrance to our house.
Farbror Jultomten was older than God; stooped over, with a long beard that reached below his waist and snow-white eyebrows, he breathed heavily and his gloved hands shook. All these years later, I can still hear the sound of his cleat boots clicking against the cobblestones of the pathway into my parents’ home. It was both the most dreaded and most anticipated sound imaginable. He would walk slowly, headed to the living room. Now, my mom was awfully proud of her living room, so much so that we were only allowed in there on Christmas Eve, after having taken off our shoes off and promised not to spill anything on her fine antique Chinese rugs. Carefully, we would seat ourselves on around Farbror Jultomten’s chair near the Christmas tree.
After catching his breath and resting for a few moments, Farbror Jultomten would greet us and make a comment or two about the long journey he’d been on and how hard it had been to find our house. And then, he would start. He always started with Hans, my older brother. In the reedy, wheezy voice of an old, old man, and pointing his trembling finger, Farbror Jultomten would something like, “You, Hans, have been fighting all year long with your sister, and you have teased her far too much.” Gulp! Next, it was my turn: “And you, Rosita, you have had an awfully messy room almost the whole year long and that closet of yours is a disgrace…” Then on to my brother Nils: “Oh Nils, you have talked back at your mother many, many times”. He spoke in Spanish with a Swedish accent (we always figured it had to do with the Scandinavian countries being so close to the North Pole) and he said these things with a combination of clarity and kindness that were simply devastating. Year after year, I thought to myself, “this is it. This is the year I really blew it and I can kiss away any hope of getting a single Christmas gift”.
No one escaped the gentle scolding that was always, always, right on the mark. And then, when even the youngest had heard about the ways he or she could have done better, Farbror Jultomten would say, “children, tell me: do you think you can try very, very hard to do better this next year?” With the greatest sincerity and solemnity we would all promise we would. He’d say that he trusted us to keep trying and would then tell us that in fact, he had brought us a few small gifts (!!!) . Out would come coffee sacks full of presents that he would distribute before leaving to continue his night journey around the world.
Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier…
We are in the season of Advent, the time when we are invited to listen, to listen deeply for the dreams and hopes of a God who the prophet Malachi tells us is like a refiner’s fire. Each year, the message is unequivocal: we receive a no that is essential for God’s yes to us: a no to the ways that lead us away from God’s steadfast friendship, a no to all those things we do that fracture us and give us permission to fall far short of what we are capable of. Our self-indulgent and self-serving ways not only hurt others and ourselves, they keep God at arm’s length, prevent the fullness of his transforming love to do its refining and purifying work in our lives.
Like the little children who gathered so reverently around Farbror Jultomten, we probably hear the same message each year—we all already know the ways we fall short, don’t we? But the message is still new and electrifying each year. It is still shocking that we are known that thoroughly. We are seen and understood and our shortcomings are that well catalogued, and yet still, we are loved enough to receive the gift and the chance to try again.
It’s the season of Advent.. Stop. Listen. Listen deeply and carefully. Hear how our God, who will not force love on us, is calling us to make straight the paths, present our ourselves to be healed and made whole, lifted up so that we will allow that God so far into our lives that we may receive the gifts of joy, and hope, and goodness and light in our lives. He draws close. So close. Will this be the year we receive him?