December 12, 2015
by Eileen Burke-Sullivan
Creighton University's Ministry Department
click here for photo and information about the writer

Saturday of the Second Week of Advent

Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11
Psalms 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Matthew 17:10-13

Today's Advent Prayer

Praying Advent Home Page

Our Lady of Guadalupe

The reading that the Church invites us to ponder today from Matthew’s Gospel in some important ways brings to a close the second week of Advent quite decisively.  Throughout this first part of the season we have been hearing various prophetic voices outline the coming Reign of God.  The texts are challenging but joyous – they have called us to pay attention to the plan of God for our salvation.  A key actor in the gospels of this first part of Advent has been John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. 

By this time in the gospel account, however, Jesus and the disciples know that John has been killed as a prophet for speaking truth to power.  Just before the passage we are pondering, several of the disciples have accompanied Jesus to the Mountain top and have seen him transfigured with his Post Resurrection glory.  In this stunning experience the disciples have a glimpse into the reality of Jesus’s extraordinary relationship with God, and the suspicion is forming in them that Jesus might be the long promised Messiah.  They are frustrated by the fact that Jesus doesn’t act much like the kind of messiah they are expecting, however, and so they dredge up from their memories of the Hebrew Scriptures the prophecy that Elijah, the greatest prophet after Moses, is supposed to come before the Messiah does to get God’s people ready to receive the Lord of glory that has been promised.

The passage from the Book of Sirach that serves as the first reading is a wisdom text that ponders the prophetic story about how Elijah will return before the messiah comes, to prepare the people of Israel for their king who is to come.  By having that text in front of us we have a sense of the character of the disciples’ expectations.  Elijah will “put an end to wrath . . . turn back the hearts of parents toward their children, and to re-establish the tribes of Israel.”  In other words Elijah will establish a context of mercy and justice into which the messianic leader can come and be recognized.

So the disciples ask Jesus about Elijah’s coming in relationship to him.  This is a way of getting Jesus to tell them if he is the Messiah or not, but Jesus shocks them by saying that Elijah has indeed already come (they didn’t recognize him, either) and that he was badly treated, as prophets are, so get ready for the fact the Messiah will be badly treated as well.

I suspect this is NOT what the disciples, coming down from the Transfiguration experience, wanted to hear.  They are NOT looking for the prophet of the fiery chariot to be killed in prison, they are not looking for a suffering Messiah. The reason that I suspect the disciples did not get it, apart from the fact that they are going to try to get him to stop talking about suffering and cross carrying, is that I, who have presumably received the Holy Spirit in baptism, don’t get it very well either. 

In addition to the crazy holiday preparations in the United States, we are also involved in the quadrennial pastime of trying to elect a national leader.  All kinds of issues are brought up, of course, and we are also in the midst of international panic over the tragic murders in Paris and other cities. Some of our candidates are fussing about whether we are appropriately celebrating “Christmas” or just celebrating “winter holidays.”  In fact, many of those worrying about whether we are appropriately celebrating the Christian holiday of Christmas would be the first ones to say it has nothing to do with John losing his head on behalf of convincing God’s people to reject all wrath and prepare for God’s peace.  Nor might they be ready to sign on with a messiah who calls his followers to humble mercy toward those most oppressed whatever race or religion they follow. 

Politicians are not the only ones not facing the dilemma of a messiah who will fulfill God’s plans, not our hope for our own personal security.  This season and these readings present a terrifying challenge. It requires me to listen to the Elijah in the wilderness of my own life, challenging me to repent and end whatever aspects of wrath still confuse my heart.  But it doesn’t stop there because there is the voice of the one coming off the mountain of glory into the valley of everyday life asking me to pick up the crosses around me and follow the Father’s plan of mercy and justice toward everyone of God’s little ones. The voices of the precursor and the messiah outline the old-but-ever-new-tasks of this Jubilee year of Mercy.  I pray the Spirit will attune me to the right voices!

“O Shepherd of Israel, lend an ear . . . revive us, and we will call on your name.” Psalm 80

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