Predikan av/Homily by Dom Benedict Hardy OSB.
On Luke 3:10-18.
The last word of the Hebrew Bible, coming at the end of the Prophecy of Malachi, is the word “curse” – “lest I come and strike the land with a curse”. To avoid the Bible ending in this way, the Jewish Rabbis adopted the custom of repeating the previous verse. “Behold” it says, “I shall send you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and terrible Day of the Lord comes.” For the Rabbis, the Day of the Lord is the day of the Messiah, so their Bible ended with a Messianic prophecy.
Several times in the New Testament, St. John the Baptist is explicitly identified as Elijah, the prophet who would reappear to prepare the people for the Advent of the Messiah. In today’s Gospel reading, we see some of Elijah’s characteristics manifest in John the Baptist. Both men were startling, unconventional figures, with a fiery message recalling the wayward people back to the Lord. We see the fierceness of Elijah in St. John’s quite violent imagery of the winnowing fan and the fire. We find here St. John concerned with social justice, and the requirement not to use power and wealth to defraud the poor, and we recall the episode of Naboth’s vineyard, and the prophet’s bold denunciation of the King and of his unscrupulous Queen.
But there was another episode in Elijah’s life which seems particularly important to recall now as Christmas approaches. That is when Elijah went to meet God on Mount Horeb – another name for Sinai, where the original law and covenant had been given through Moses. The traditional signs of God’s presence were all manifested for Elijah: there was a whirlwind, an earthquake, and fire from heaven. Yet somehow God was not to be found there. Then there was what the NRSV translates as “a sound of sheer silence” – a strange Hebrew phrase that others translate as “a gentle whispering breeze” (1/III Kings 19:12). And Elijah knew that God was there.
And this is the paradox at the heart of Christmas, and the paradox which confronted St. John the Baptist. God comes to His people: He is all holy, all powerful, and terrifying, for no wickedness can stand before Him, and He comes to purify and pronounce judgement. Yet He chose to come in humility, even in silence. He was a tiny baby born to refugee parents; He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And St. John the Baptist proclaimed Him as the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world by being slain for our sake on the cross.
And it seemed that the prophecies had not been fulfilled: the wheat and the chaff carry on together; all unseparated, and the world goes on as it did, only apparently from bad to worse. We were promised baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, yet apparently our lives are much as they were: not actually transformed so that we become blazing cherubim, all utterly pure and holy, ceaselessly praising God in ecstatic joy.
But, as St. Paul said, God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25).
God achieves the fulfilment of his plan in His own way much more certainly, much more beautifully, and in a way that is much better for us, than if He had merely overwhelmed us in power. With Elijah in his cave we see how God is more present, not less, when He comes to us in a hidden way, and asks us to receive him freely, in faith. And a great part of the grace of Christmas is that it gives us the opportunity to contemplate this mystery, this paradox, in wonder and love, in adoration and thanksgiving. St. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians to rejoice always is all part of the same paradox and mystery. However severe the trials and sufferings of life, those who have faith understand that in Christ we truly do have cause to rejoice always, and without ceasing, for He is Emmanuel, God with us, and nothing now can separate us from Him.
So the final warning of Malachi was not fulfilled. God did not come and strike the land with a curse. Instead he came with a blessing, as Malachi had also spoken about.
See he says in God’s name, if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you, and pour out an abundant blessing for you (Mal 3:11). Malachi’s original Jewish hearers would have naturally understood this as meaning they would have an abundant harvest. But we, with fuller understanding, interpret the inspired text to refer to the infinitely greater blessing of the Incarnation.
The Lord, in Malachi’s prophecy, goes on to promise that the vine will not be barren. So especially these days we think of our blessed Lady, the truly fruitful representative of the Vine which is Israel, bringing forth Jesus for the world. And all nations, says the prophet, will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delights, says the Lord God of hosts. So with the prophet, and our Blessed Lady we repeat: All generations will call me blessed, for Christ is coming soon.
In a few days we will sing at the Magnificat: “O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti” O Christ, you who are the power of God, and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24): veni ad docendum nos – Come and teach us – come into our minds, our hearts, our lives, that we may better understand your mystery. Drive out what in us is chaff, purify and multiply what is good wheat; set us on fire by your Holy Spirit: that we might be transformed by your presence, and so able to celebrate the coming feast with true spiritual joy.