Saturday of the second week of Advent
Sir 48:1-4, 9-11
Ps 80:2ac and 3b, 15-16, 18-19
Mt 17:9a, 10-13
The readings for the day can be found here.
What an odd and wonderful set of images that converge on the Prophet Elijah in today’s readings! The reading from Sirach begins by saying he appeared like a fire and his words were like a furnace, and with good reason – Elijah is famous for having called down fire from heaven to burn a sacrifice to God (after which he had hundreds of prophets from the cult of the god Ba’al killed), he killed a hundred soldiers by calling down even more fire from heaven, and at the end of his life on earth, a fiery chariot took him to the heavens.
The gospel for today falls just after Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on a mountain. Seeing Elijah with Jesus, the disciples ask why it was taught that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah (an expectation which continues in some Jewish circles today). This was not a novel belief; the last verses of the last book of the Old Testament, the Book of Malachi, reference this “new” Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD”. (4:5)
As always with Jesus, however, there is a twist: whereas the Jewish people of that time generally understood the “day of the Lord” to be a day when God’s wrath would establish peace by consuming the unrighteous, both the reading and the gospel portray Elijah not only MAKING peace, but coming peacefully, as opposed to pacifying people through a display of overwhelming force. Sirach says Elijah would come to put an end to wrath, rather than dish out even more of it, and Jesus says that Elijah would “restore all things.” Hardly the firebrand we see in the First and Second Books of Kings; no wonder that people do not recognize the spirit of Elijah in John the Baptist when, despite the fiery tone and content of his message, he fails to produce a single blast of flame from the heavens!
Indeed, John the Baptist is a fitting anti-Elijah for Jesus the anti-Messiah, who responds to images of the Messiah which are based in power politics and overlording authority with the upside-down power of feeding and healing and forgiving. Today’s gospel, we recall, occurs on the way to Jerusalem, where Jesus, like John, would be executed by the power elites whom they both challenged.
I suggest that the apocalyptic imagery of the day of the Lord, the coming of the Messiah, the inbreaking of “THE END” are all juxtaposed here with the beginning of the new liturgical year and the beginning of the life of Jesus because “the end” is not the end of the world so much as the end of business as usual. In that vein, and in honor of the fiery prophets Elijah and John, I offer one final image of fire, this one drawn from the works of the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. In her short story “Revelation,” (appropriately, the English translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, apocalypse) the haughty and self-satisfied protagonist Mrs. Turpin has a vision of “a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire,” on which walked a vast multitude of souls. She could see other “good” people like herself, “accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior” at the end of the line, and “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” Terrible image! Perhaps the most dread fire, more to be feared than fiery chariots and fireballs to destroy our enemies, is the one that burns away our most tightly-clutched defense mechanisms, our narrow hopes, our need to project our fantasies of power onto God.
Patrick Cousins is a member of the Department of Campus Ministry and is completing a doctorate in Religion through Syracuse University.