After almost two weeks of listening to the Prophet Isaiah and his various Messianic oracles, the readings for Saturday of the Second Week of Advent focus our attention a different prophet; namely, Elijah.
Elijah was one of two men of the Hebrew Scriptures who seem not to experience death. The exodus of Elijah as it is told in the Book of Kings reports that Elijah was swept up in a chariot of fire, a vision experienced by his successor, Elisha. Because of this incident the children of Israel believed that he would return just before the advent of the Messiah, preparing their hearts for the great day of the Lord. The evangelists take great pains to cast St. John the Baptist in this light as he prepares his disciples and those who hear his preaching for the public ministry of Jesus.
The reading from the Book of Sirach that we hear today briefly recounts Elijah’s history as it praises his life and reflects upon it. The Gospel of Matthew reports that his disciples ask Jesus about the Elijah tradition. Jesus affirms the belief and reports that Elijah is already on the scene.
The tradition that underlies the Prophet Elijah and which provides a foundation for the preaching of St. John the Baptist comes from the apocalyptic tradition which believes that the world needs to be purified before the coming of the Messiah. While the Book of Genesis insists that all of creation was seen as “good” or “very good” by God at its creation, these sacred authors hold that sin has corrupted the natural order as well as the children of Adam. Fire was the most common way to purify in this Middle Eastern culture. Contagion, disease, pollution were all conquered by fire. The prophet escapes this corrupt world by fire. St. John alludes to the fire which the Messiah will bring to purify the nation of Israel. Indeed, even today many think of purgation as happened through fire. Apocalyptic literature is filled with references to the fiery end of the world on the Day of the Lord.
Yet Jesus enters the world in a completely different way than expected. He is born quietly and without much notice in the little town of Bethlehem. Instead of a winnowing fan and fire to burn the chaff, Jesus walks among sinners, eats with them and gently calls them to repentance. John reports that he is unworthy to unfasten the sandals on the feet of the Messiah. Jesus kneels before his disciples and washes their feet. Is it any wonder that late in his ministry, John send his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the One who is to come? Should they look for another?
Will we recognize the Savior when he comes again? The answer to that question lies in whether we recognize him now in the faces of the poor and the marginalized peoples of our world.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator