Throughout this season of Advent the readings at Mass make references to the Old Testament prophets who prepared the way for Jesus. Our first reading today is from Isaiah who might be the finest poet who ever lived. Then, our Gospel focuses on John the Baptist who came in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah. So, let us see what Isaiah and Elijah can add to getting ready for Christmas.
Our first reading, coming from Chapter Thirty-five of Isaiah is from a time of great sadness in Jerusalem. The cruel conquerors of Assyria had recently enslaved the people of Lebanon; as well, they had led Israelites of ten tribes off into captivity.
While all Jerusalem wept over the loss of relatives and of fair lands, Isaiah’s grounding in God kept him from lamenting.
He pictured God’s trustfulness with a poetic vision of Carmel and Sharon restored to spender. He saw those in sorrow “meeting with joy and gladness.”
In today’s Gospel Jesus said, “Of those born of woman there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” All the people marveled over John’s strength of character. Jesus joined them in seeing John to be almost a reincarnation of the great prophet Elijah. He said, “If you can see it, he is Elijah.” In the last verse of the Old Testament God announced, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the Day of the Lord.”
One great Old Testament story about Elijah comes from the Second Book of Kings. Queen Jezebel had put all of God’s prophets to the sword, installing in their place four hundred and fifty priests of the god Baal.
Elijah called the bluff of those priests. On a rocky mountain ridge he had servants place slaughtered cattle on two stacks of dry timbers. He challenged the priests of Baal to call down fire from heaven to light their sacrifice. With a day of wild dancing, and with self-inflicted bloody cuts, the priests strove without success to get Baal to send down fire. Elijah had his servants thoroughly soak the wood with water. Then, with complete confidence, he asked God to ignite the wood for his sacrifice. God sent down the fire, and Elijah wasn’t at all surprised.