Saturday, December 10th, 2011
It’s a bit odd that, having descended the mountain of Transfiguration with our Lord, the disciples ask about Elijah and not Moses (today’s Gospel). After all, it was Moses to whom the Law was given, Moses who led the people out of captivity, and Moses who built the Tabernacle after the heavenly pattern. Indeed, the infidelity that the prophets excoriate is an infidelity in terms of Moses’ covenantal patrimony.
Two differences between the way these men of God manifest divine power can be considered, and which point to the prominence of Elijah for our Gospel.
Moses is able to divide the sea, to conquer the Amalekites, and to draw water from a rock. But he does this largely by way of mere gestures–stretching forth of the hands and striking with the staff. No words accompany these actions. To be sure, Moses received unique commands and inspirations from God to do such and such, but his instrumentality remains–as it were–dumb. Hence, the people witness and experience this power as if from the outside, which is the second point. Moses brings down the tablets of law that God Himself inscribed: but the people do not ascend the mountain, and Moses merely gives what he has received.
Differently, our first lesson points out, Elijah’s amazing deeds are connected with his “words,” which are as “a flaming furnace.” It is by “the Lord’s word that he shut the heavens and three times brought down fire.” It is his words that communicate his “wondrous deeds.” Indeed, the parity between God’s word and the prophet’s words is such that Sirach asks–with reference to Elijah! (i.e., not God as such)–”whose glory is equal to yours?!”
Elijah’s glory is greater than that of Moses. He does equally great deeds, for example splitting the Jordan river (2 Kings 2.8) as Moses did the Red Sea. But moreover, like Christ, Elijah raises the dead (1 Kings 17.23).
Because these works, as emphasized by Sirach, are effected by Elijah’s words, the people are privy to the will and presence of God in a way that they did not have with Moses. As a result, all who have “seen” Elijah are blessed.
Consequently, the prophetic tradition to which the wisdom author, Sirach, witnesses, recognizes that the Messianic age is one where words communicate power. Indeed, the Messiah is the very Word made flesh. The ultimate gesture of God is that His selfsame Word is made manifest in the Nativity of His Son! God wants us to hear the words of His works!
Coming down from the mount of Transfiguration, then, the disciples ask a somewhat academic question about why “scribes” say that Elijah has to come first. Jesus simply responds by saying that Elijah has come! Our Lord emphasizes the fact that the words of the Bible (specifically, Malachi 4.1-5) and the words of God’s preachers (specifically, John the Baptist) manifest what needs be seen. People do not “recognize” what they ought because they have not heeded aright the words that have been preached to them.
Today, St. John the Baptist encourages us to recognize the Messiah by heeding the words of his tradition. A great attention to the Word of God as constitutive of any kind of spirituality is necessary…
as it is to the words of the liturgy, which are taken from the Bible and traditional preaching of the Church’s Saints. Our new translation provides precisely this opportunity to make a straight pathway in our hearts for the Lord.
The Church entrusts her ordained ministers with the prophetic task to manifest uniquely the works of God through the celebration of the sacraments. When the people respond “And with your Spirit,” they are making a unique response to God’s ordained ministers because to these latter have been imparted a special share in the Spirit of the Almighty. That special share is what empowers them in a unique and Elijah-like way to say “The Lord be with you”… not only so that they might mean it themselves, but so that they might effect it for others!