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.
Elijah certainly caught the imagination of the Israelites, as patron saint for those in need. Because this fierce, fiery prophet was taken from the earth in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:11), a tradition arose that he must return before the great Messiah would come. The abruptness with which he ended his days on earth corresponds with his sudden first appearance in the story, when without any formal introduction he came to King Ahab, predicting a famine upon the land (1 Kgs 17:1). As we read his story, Elijah moves between violently contrasting scenes. How tenderly he brought a dead boy back to life for the sake of the widowed mother (1 Kgs 17:22), but in the very next scene he confronts four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba’al who were eventually brought down to the river for execution! Elijah can act with exceptional self-confidence, yet can be so discouraged as to flee all the way to Mount Sinai to be consoled in a quiet vision of the Lord’s presence (1 Kgs 19).
Today’s reading from Sirach lauds the marvelous exploits of Elijah and suggests that his great accomplishment was to reestablish the unity of Israel.
While John the Baptist shows some of the more austere and violent aspects of Elijah, Jesus saw himself also in the role of Elijah the persecuted prophet who ushered in the day of the Lord. As John the Baptist and Jesus preached their respective messages they encountered fierce opposition. Because the Baptist confronted Herod for his immoral union with his brother’s wife, he was eventually beheaded. Because Jesus strove to bring dignity to people considered "outlaws" by the religious authorities he too was hounded by opposition and persecution. Both John and Jesus stood up for common decency and normal human dignity. They worked for unity, though not unity at any cost. As the heart of his message Jesus calls us to form one family of love; so it is a goal that we may never give up hope of achieving, and one to which we constantly return in prayer.
Jesus identifies John the Baptist with the prophet Elijah. It was believed that Elijah would come just before the coming of the long awaited Messiah. Jesus says of John the Baptist, the long awaited Elijah figure, that "they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased." The experience of John 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. As we draw nearer to celebrating the birth of Jesus we are being reminded of the cross that awaited this child. I’ve seen a painting that combines the birth of Jesus with his cross: 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 this 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.