Elijah was representative of the prophets whilst Moses was representative of the Law.
This explains why both Elijah and Moses appeared at the Transfiguration just before today’s gospel periscope. (cf Mt 17:1-8
) The book of Sirach praises the ideal prophet in the person of Elijah. “The prophet Elijah arose like a fire, his word flaring like a torch. It was he who brought famine on them, and who decimated them in his zeal. By the word of the Lord, he shut up the heavens, he also, three times, brought down fire. How glorious you were in your miracles, Elijah! Has anyone reason to boast as you have? – taken up in the whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with fiery horses; designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks.” And it ended with hope, “Happy shall they be who see you, and those who have fallen asleep in love.” This was the hope that the prophet Malachi told the people that Elijah would come again to prepare for the day of the Lord. “Behold, I will send you Eli′jah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” (Mal 4:5f
Hence, the question ‘Has Elijah come’? This question was always in the minds of the people as they were curious about the identity of John the Baptist. Right from the outset, the people were already asking him, “Who are you? Are you Eli′jah? Are you the prophet?” (cf Jn 1:20f) He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (Jn 1:23) In today’s gospel, after the Transfiguration experience where Elijah appeared with Moses, the disciples again asked the same question, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah has to come first?” The reply of Jesus was clear, “’Elijah is to come to see that everything is once more as it should be; however, I tell you that Elijah has come already and they did not recognise him but treated him as they pleased; and the Son of Man will suffer similarly at their hands.’ The disciples understood then that he had been speaking of John the Baptist.”
Indeed, they all knew that John the Baptist was the Elijah that the prophet Malachi spoke about. But they were in self-denial. This was because they were not ready to accept his message of repentance. We see this clearly in another incident when Jesus was questioned about His authority. Jesus answered them, “’I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ ‘But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet.’” (Mt 21:24-26)
Indeed, both scripture readings focus on the ministry of both Elijah and John the Baptist. In many instances, both were quite similar as prophets. Both were called to prepare the hearts of the people to welcome the Messiah. Both were deeply in love with God and passionate about preserving the purity of the faith. Both were preachers of repentance. Both were courageous in speaking out against morality and falsehood. Both had the audacity to reprimand and confront the evil kings, Ahaz and Herod respectively. Both lived an exemplary life of simplicity. Finally, both were conscious that they were simply forerunners for someone greater that was to come. The Jewish leaders all knew deep in their hearts that John the Baptist was the New Elijah who was to come and prepare the way for the Lord.
Jesus lamented at the inconsistencies of the religious leaders and the people. “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Mt 11:16-19)
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, have we taken the call to repentance seriously? Have we heard John the Baptist and Elijah calling us to have a change of heart? We cannot truly welcome Christ into our hearts and be filled with His joy and peace if we do not repent of our inconsistent lifestyle. We claim to be Christian Catholics, but we do not take the gospel seriously. We do not live a life of integrity. We can be attending mass faithfully but we do not live out the gospel life. We are not much different from Herod who enjoyed listening to John the Baptist but lacked the will to live in accordance with his message. We need to remove the obstacles that hinder us from welcoming the Lord into our hearts. What are some of these obstacles to faith and repentance?
Firstly, the lack of humility to acknowledge our need for repentance. The religious leaders were not receptive to the message of John the Baptist, unlike the common people. They tried to find all kinds of excuses and reasons to dismiss John the Baptist as a prophet. What we need to do is to acquire the humility of John the Baptist. He had no self-pretence. When asked and pressured to identify himself, he said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’ (Jn 1:23) “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn 1:26f) John the Baptist was a man true to himself. He was true to his conscience.
Secondly, in our fear, we might also be responsible for killing the prophets of God. We know how difficult it is to accept a prophet in our midst. A true prophet of God is always unsettling to the establishment. Often, we use our authority to stifle the alternative views of others because we fear that we might not be able to handle them. This was the way of the religious leaders during the time of Jesus. They not only killed the prophets before John the Baptist, but they too disposed of John the Baptist and our Lord. Good prophets often suffer at the hands of unjust people simply because they speak the truth. It behooves us therefore to pray for humility to be receptive to views that challenge our comfort zone.
Today, we are also called not just to have a change of heart by acknowledging our need for conversion but we are called to be like Elijah and John the Baptist, sharing in their vocation to be forerunners and witnesses of Christ. The entire life of John was to prepare for this mission. It was his vocation, a calling when he was still in his mother’s womb. He was only concerned about making Jesus known and to prepare a people to receive the Messiah. He was ready to make way for Jesus. When the time came, he asked his disciples to follow Him. He knew he was not the bridegroom. “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’” (Jn 1:29-31)
We too must lead people to Jesus in our vocation and according to our state of life. In our apostolate and ministry, we must be careful that we do not make ourselves the focus of attention. There are some people who serve in the Church but they want to draw people to themselves rather than to the Lord. When we draw people to us, they will leave empty and unfulfilled. But if they are drawn to the Lord by our love and humility, they will be inspired by the Lord. There is no better way to witness to the Lord than to try to live our lives according to the gospel and the doctrines that we uphold. But we cannot be great witnesses and forerunners for our Lord unless we too grow in our interior life like Elijah and John the Baptist. Without His grace and without growing in holiness, we cannot edify others by our lives.