Commentary on Sir 48:1-4, 9-11
For today we leave aside ‘Second Isaiah’ and have a one-off reading from the book of Sirach. This is one of the so-called ‘apocryphal’ books, which are part of our Catholic Bible but are not included in the Bibles of the Jews or other Christian denominations. It is also known as ‘Ecclesiasticus’, and is not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, a book accepted by all denominations. This part of Sirach consists of a long list of eulogies of various personalities in the Old Testament. As the New Jerusalem Bible comments: "This eulogy shows how a devout Jew of the 2nd century before Christ thought of the history of his people." The eulogy in today’s reading is about the prophet Elijah. He is praised as the prophet of the Northern Kingdom who prophesied in the name of God against King Ahab about 869 BC. He also denounced the worship of the god Baal. Elijah’s dramatic story can be found in the First Book of Kings, chaps 17-19 and in the first two chapters of the Second Book of Kings. Mendelssohn has a magnificent oratorio based on Elijah’s exploits. A number of his deeds are referred to in today’s reading.
Why read this passage today? There are at least two reasons. One remarkable thing about Elijah is that he did not die naturally. As today’s reading says, he was "taken up [to heaven] in the whirlwind of fire in a chariot with fiery horses". It was witnessed by Elisha, who took over his prophetic mantle. But it was expected that one day Elijah would come back to earth and that his return would signify the imminent coming of the Messiah. He was "to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob".
Whether Elijah has returned yet or not, we do not really know, but the Gospel – and Jesus himself – implies very strongly that the role as forerunner of the Messiah has been in fact filled by John the Baptist. And some of the texts that we have been reading this week from Isaiah are applied by the Gospel to John.
Another reason is that today’s Gospel is a passage immediately following the story of the Transfiguration in which Elijah appears with Moses talking with Jesus.
We can apply the final passage of the reading to ourselves: "Happy shall they be who see you [Elijah], and those who have fallen asleep in love." The exact reading and meaning of the sentence is not clear because of defects in the original texts that have been handed down. But those who would see Elijah return would also see the Messiah who followed soon after. We are among those fortunate to welcome the Messiah, Jesus Christ, into our lives and to learn from him the Way in which our lives are to be lived. And happy "those who have fallen asleep in love". For, filled with the love of God, a life face to face with God forever is assured.