23 December – First Reading

Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4,23-24 [or 4:5-6]

The prophecy of Malachi appears as the very last book in the Old Testament and is followed immediately in our Bibles by the Gospel according to Matthew. Nothing is known about this person except that he probably lived in the period 500-450 BC. He speaks frequently of the Covenant and shows great respect for the supplementary priestly teaching of the Torah. His emphases on sin, judgement, and repentance in preparation for the Lord’s coming mark him out as a prophet, even though his writing style is different.

“I am going to send a messenger to prepare the way before me.” The Hebrew for ‘messenger’ here is mal’aki, the name given to the author of today’s reading. But the messenger Malachi speaks about is traditionally believed to be Elijah, who would return to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah. Matthew, however, will apply this text (Matt 11:10) to John the Baptist, whose birth and circumcision are described in today’s Gospel.

John, in fact, will bring the Old Testament to a close. He carries on where Malachi, the last of the prophets, left off. He, himself, then bows out as Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant of God with his people, who are now the people of the whole world. In fact, the Gospel sees John as more an Old Testament figure (“the least in the Kingdom is greater than he”) because he died before the redemptive work of Jesus was competed.

The return of Elijah was an important tradition in Jewish belief, but Jesus will say that Elijah came in the person of John the Baptist. “John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted” (Matt 11:14). And, after the Transfiguration (where Elijah was seen speaking with Jesus), Jesus says to his disciples:

Elijah is indeed coming first and he will get everything ready [for the coming of the Messiah]. But I tell you that Elijah has already come and people did not recognise him, but treated him just as they pleased…Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
(Matt 17:11-13; also Mark 6:14-15)

It will be the role of John as the ‘messenger’ of Malachi’s prophecy to announce the Lord’s coming – in the person of Jesus – and bring about the fulfilment of God’s work in history.

He shall turn the hearts of fathers towards their children and the hearts of children towards their fathers.

In Luke’s gospel (1:17), this is foretold as being precisely what John the Baptist would do.

And Jesus, the ‘messenger of the Covenant’, in his turn will come as a refiner and purifier to purge his people of their sin and their infidelities. He will do this through his life, suffering, passion, death and resurrection.

At the end of today’s Gospel, the people ask, on seeing the circumstances surrounding John the Baptist’s birth, “What will this child turn out to be?” The answer is in the Gospel.

But we might turn the question on ourselves. What was I expected to turn out to be? How have I, in fact, turned out? Whatever my answer, there is still time to turn myself in the direction I know God is calling me to follow. And part of the answer will be, like John the Baptist, to go ahead of the Lord and help bring him into other people’s lives.

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