14th December. Saturday in the 2nd Week of Advent
Memorial of Saint John of the Cross, doctor of the Church
First Reading: Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11
(Lyrical praise of the great Elijah, a prophet whose word burned like a torch.)
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
(John the Baptist was the “Elijah” — the fore-runner, before the Messiah’s arrival.)
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.
Elijah certainly caught the imagination of the Israelites. Because he was taken up from earth in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:11), Jewish tradition believed that he must return to preach repentance and renewal before the great messianic day. The abruptness with which he ended his days on earth corresponds well with his sudden first appearance on the public stage, when he stood without any introduction in the presence of King Ahab, announcing a famine upon the land (1 Kgs 17:1). As we read Elijah’s story (from 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2,) he seemed to be caught between violently contrasting scenes. On one occasion he gently brings a dead boy back to life for the sake of the widowed mother (1 Kgs 17:22), but in the very next chapter he confronts four hundred and fifty false prophets who were eventually brought down to the brook Kishon and slain. Elijah 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 embodieded 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 longed-for transformation of Israel through God’s exceptional intervention.
The Book of Sirach suggests that Elijah’s great accomplishment was to reestablish unity within the families and tribes of Israel. We all recognize unity as a most difficult goal to achieve. If a serious division sets in between members of the same family, it seems impossible to restore any kind of loving agreement. When religious groups split from one another, we end up with the scandal of division within Christianity, not to mention violent differences between Christians, Jews and Muslims, three world religions sprung from the same parent and patriarch, Abraham.
Jesus and John the Baptist encountered fierce opposition. Because the Baptist confronted king Herod 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. Both the Baptist and Jesus stood up for common decency and normal human dignity. They worked for unity, and paid for it with the price of their lives.