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In the spirit and power of Elijah

Friday, December 11, 2015

There is a difference between false modesty and true modesty, which is truth-ful. 

In this Gospel passage we have an example of Christ’s humility, which is a kind of true modesty. Jesus is teaching the crowds and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. And he starts telling them about John the Baptist – not about himself as the awaited Messiah, but about his forerunner, the prophet, who is even 'more than a prophet'. Of course there are moments in the Gospels when Jesus explicitly declares that he is the Son of God, and acts in a manner that could only be interpreted that way. But here we have Jesus using a different pedagogical method: he wants the crowds to work it out for themselves, to read the signs of the times, and to recognise that John the Baptist is pointing to Jesus himself. They have heard John the Baptist say of Jesus, 'He must increase, I must decrease', and so they don’t need Jesus to spell it out for them in such words as, 'I must increase, he must decrease'. Though had he done so, this would not have been wrong or immodest, because it would be the truth after all!

Instead, then, Jesus is talking in a somewhat indirect, even paradoxical, way about himself. In the verse just before our Gospel passage, Jesus has quoted the prophet Malachi: 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.' It’s one of the famous passages which you get in Handel’s Messiah: ‘But who may abide the day of his coming…?’ This messenger is explicitly named as Elijah in the next chapter of Malachi (4:5) : 'Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.'

So the Jews were expecting a kind of reincarnation of Elijah. That’s why, when they ask John the Baptist, ‘Are you Elijah?’ and ‘Are you the prophet?’ he says ‘I am not.’ At one level the fact that he repeatedly uses the phrase ‘I am not’ serves prophetically to create an expectation of the true Christ, who will say repeatedly ‘I AM’ - using the divine name itself. But at another level, John the Baptist’s denials are meant to counteract the false expectations about a reincarnated Elijah. John the Baptist has come in the spirit of Elijah, not as Elijah himself. This was the point made by the angel to John’s father Zechariah in the prophecy in the Temple:
he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah,
… to make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Lk 1:17).

So Jesus, in our passage, can be quite explicit in identifying John with Elijah: ‘If you are willing to accept it,’ he says  – i.e. accept the prophetic fact that John is prophesying about me in spirit and power – then ‘he is Elijah who is to come’. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will confirm this teaching: 'I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands’ (Mt 17:12).

So John the Baptist has come in the spirit and power of Elijah. This Advent, we have the opportunity to hear again this truth, to accept it, and to share it – because the ramifications are extraordinary. Jesus has encouraged the crowds to think seriously about John the Baptist, in the hope that they will take the hint and recognise Jesus as the Messiah. If John the Baptist has proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom and the forgiveness of sins, Jesus himself is telling us that the Kingdom is here and now among us.

This homily was delivered yesterday, the Second Thursday of Advent, at the 6.15pm Mass at the Priory of the Holy Spirit (Blackfriars), Oxford. The Gospel text was Matthew 11:11-15.

Top image: 'St John the Baptist Baptizes the People', by Nicolas Poussin

Fr Matthew Jarvis O.P.


Fr Matthew Jarvis is currently studying Patristics at the Catholic University of Lyon.


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