Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire,
and his word burned like a torch. He brought a famine upon them,
and by his zeal he made them few in number. By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,
and also three times brought down fire. How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
Whose glory is equal to yours?
You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with horses of fire. At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob. Happy are those who saw you
and were adorned with your love!
For we also shall surely live.
As they were coming down the mountain, the disciples asked Jesus, "Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" He replied, "Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
The iconic figure of Elijah caught the imagination of the Jews because he was taken up from earth in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:11). Jewish tradition expected his return to preach repentance and renewal before the great messianic age would dawn. While John the Baptist mirrored the more austere aspects of Elijah, Jesus reflected another aspect of Elijah, as the persecuted prophet who ushers in the day of the Lord. As the Elijah tradition was handed on among the Jews, it tended to absorb the aspirations and hopes of each generation. Elijah came to symbolize the longed-for transformation of Israel through God's exceptional intervention.
Today's text from Sirach sees Elijah's greatest legacy as reestablishing unity within the families and tribes of Israel. But unity was and is a most difficult goal to achieve. If a serious division sets in between members of the same nation or family, it seems impossible to reach a peaceful agreement. When strong religious figures insist on total adherence to their views, we end up with the splitting up of Christendom in the West, not to mention the violent differences now seething in the Middle East.
Like Jesus himself, John the Baptist encountered fierce opposition. Because John confronted king Herod for his immoral union with his brother's wife, he was eventually beheaded. Because Jesus strove for dignity and acceptance for people despised by the religious authorities he too was hounded and bitterly opposed. Both the Baptist and Jesus stood for common decency and normal human dignity. They worked to awaken a sense of human equality in the sight of God, and paid for it with the price of their lives.
In the gospel today Jesus identifies John the Baptist with the prophet Elijah, whose return was expected just before the coming of the long awaited Messiah. Jesus says of the Elijah-type figure, John the Baptist, that "they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased." The experience of the Baptist would become the experience of Jesus himself, as Jesus says in that reading, "the Son of Man will suffer similarly at their hands." Both John and Jesus proclaimed the values of God's kingdom and both of them suffered greatly for doing so. Even as we draw nearer to celebrating the birth of Jesus we are being reminded of the cross that awaited this child.
There is a painting of the Nativity that especially impresses me and makes me see meaningful links running through the whole life of Jesus. At the bottom of the painting there is an image of the adult Christ under the beam of the cross looking upon the baby. At Christmas we celebrate the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Today's gospel reminds us that God's giving was a giving-unto-death, a giving that cost not less than everything. It is this costly gift that we open our hearts to receive anew at this time of the year, so that we can give to others what God has given to us.