Throughout Advent, and especially at Christmas, we tend to think of God as Light in darkness. In many ways, it is a comforting image: warm, reassuring, beckoning us to a richer, fuller life. We hail Christ as the Rising Sun, the Light that enlightens the gentiles, and our liturgy is full of dawn imagery and glorious sunbursts. We can forget the shadows because that wonderful Light bathes us in its blessedness. We do indeed think of the Holy Spirit as flame and fire, but here in the northern hemisphere we do so predominantly in springtime, when we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, and if we are honest, the ever-growing daylight and abundance of sunshine weakens our sense of the fiery. This morning, however, we are in a world of flaming torches and brilliant red-gold sparks set against an inky darkness. We are with Elijah and John the Baptist, and their words sear our souls (Ecclesiasticus 48. 1-4,9-12 and Matthew 17.10-13). Fire is not to be trifled with. It surrounds the very throne of God and is an image of his love for us. We can never forget that the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ of the hymn is one with the God whose love is a consuming fire.
I think we sometimes downplay the ‘otherness’ of God because it reminds us that we are not in control. We like to think that we have got our lives more or less sorted out and only need to bring God into things when it suits us. Thus, we pray for a particular blessing (and get very annoyed when it isn’t granted) or make a pefunctory acknowledgement of God’s omnipotence by going to church once in a while. Of course, I exaggerate; but even monks and nuns, who are in choir several times a day and have a solemn commitment to private prayer and reading, know how easily routine can blunt our sensibility. There are times, for example, when I come to the end of an Office and wonder whether I have prayed at all (though, to be fair, there are others when I have only to pass the oratory door and am filled with an overwhelming sense of the majesty and beauty of God).
Today we shall all be busy about many things. Some of them will be very good things — part of our Advent programme. But perhaps it would be a good idea, just before Gaudete Sunday, to slow down, drop our busy-ness and our own ideas of what constitutes a good Advent and simply spend a few minutes registering the utter transcendence of God — his infinite beauty, power and holiness. This is the God of Elijah and John the Baptist, a God who dwells in inaccessible fire and flame but who also willed to become man, that we might share his divinity.