Advent Week 2 – Saturday
Sirach 48:1ff. Lyrical praise of the great Elijah, a prophet whose word burned like a torch.
Matthew 17:9ff. John the Baptist was the “Elijah” – the fore-runner, before the Messiah’s arrival.
First Reading: Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11
Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire,
and his word burned like a torch.
He brought a famine upon them,
and by his zeal he made them few in number.
By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,
and also three times brought down fire.
How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
Whose glory is equal to yours?
You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with horses of fire.
At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
Happy are those who saw you
and were adorned with your love!
For we also shall surely live.
Gospel: Matthew 17:9a, 10-13
As they were coming down the mountain, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands. ” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
What Elijah means
Elijah certainly caught the imagination of the Israelites. Because he was taken up from earth in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:11), a tradition arose that he must return before the great messianic day. The abruptness with which he ended his days on earth corresponds well with his sudden first appearance in the Bible. He stood without any formal introduction in the presence of King Ahab, announcing a famine upon the land (1 Kgs 17:1). As we read the account of Elijah from 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2, he seemed to be caught between violently contrasting scenes. Tenderly he brought a dead boy back to life for the sake of the widowed mother (1 Kgs 17:22), but in the very next chapter he confronted four hundred and fifty false prophets who were eventually brought down to the brook Kishon, where Elijah slit their throats in mass execution. Elijah, we see, can act with exceptional strength and self-confidence, yet he can be so discouraged as to flee all the way to Mount Sinai to be consoled in a quiet vision of the Lord’s pesence (1 Kgs 19).
While John the Baptist captured some of the more austere and violent aspects of Elijah, Jesus saw himself also in the role of Elijah the persecuted prophet who ushers in the day of the Lord. As any notable tradition was transmitted in biblical times, it tended to absorb the aspirations and hopes of people of each generation. Elijah came to symbolize the total transformation of Israel through God’s exceptional intervention.
The liturgical reading from Sirach omits verses 5 to 8 of chapter 48. More of the marvelous exploits of Elijah, enhanced by tradition to reflect the evolving messianic hopes of the people, are recorded by Sirach than we read at the eucharistic celebration. The liturgy suggests that Elijah’s great accomplishment was to reestablish unity within the families and tribes of Israel.
We all recognize unity as the most difficult goal to achieve. If a serious division sets in between members of the same family, it seems impossible to restore love and agreement. When religious groups split off from one another, we end up with the overwhelming scandal of division within Christianity or the violent differences between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, three world religions sprung from the same parent and patriarch, Abraham.
Yet as Jesus and John the Baptist proceeded in their work, they encountered fierce opposition. Because John the Baptist confronted Herod the Tetrarch for his immoral union with his brother’s wife, he was eventually beheaded. Because Jesus strove to bring dignity to people considered “outlaws” by religious authorities he too began to be hounded by opposition and even open persecution. Both John the Baptist and Jesus stood up for common decency and normal human dignity.
They worked for unity, but we notice that it was not unity at any cost. This new bond between brothers and sisters had to manifest honour and purity of heart, kindliness and forgiveness. These virtues seem so easy to recognize, so crucial as to render all discussion unnecessary. This honourable way of life seems possible by following a few simple instructions.
Yet, how we all resist these solutions. Jesus expects us to form one family of love, yet we will continue to hold on to grudges, hurts and bad memories. To continue with such enmity and division brings us ever closer to great tragedies, like the crucifixion of Jesus. A family member may die without reconciliation and we must continue living with great regret and a conscience that punishes us severely. Jesus came to save us from such wrath.