Dec 23, 2021: Weekdays of Advent from December 17 to 24

Introduction

The last eight days of Advent (December 17-24) are a time of intense preparation in anticipation of the birth of Christ. During this final stretch before Christmas, special readings are used for the weekday Masses, and the traditional “O Antiphons” are employed in the liturgy.

During these eight days, the Gospel readings cover all of Matthew Chapter 1 and Luke Chapter 1, sequentially; the first readings are selected thematically from various prophetic books of the Old Testament.

1st Reading – Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24

Thus says the Lord GOD:
Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me;
and suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
refining them like gold or like silver
that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD.
Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem
will please the LORD,
as in the days of old, as in years gone by.

Lo, I will send you
Elijah, the prophet,
before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day,
to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their fathers,
lest I come and strike the land with doom.

Our first reading is the passage that completes the writings of the prophets and concludes the entire Old Testament, which is fitting as we prepare to celebrate the launch of the New Testament with the birth of Jesus.

This prophecy from Malachi was originally addressed to the Israelites who had returned to the holy land after the Babylonian exile. The prophet was extremely critical of the way the people were living their lives and called for reform.

In today’s reading, Malachi is warning the people that they should repent because the day of the Lord is coming.

Thus says the Lord GOD:

The standard introduction to a prophetic oracle, indicating that the words are not the prophet’s, but God’s.

Lo, I am sending my messenger 

The Hebrew name mal’ākî, from which the title of the book comes, means “my messenger.” Commentators are not in agreement about the identity of this messenger, but later in this passage (verse 23), this messenger is called Elijah.

to prepare the way before me;

An ambassador or other envoy being sent ahead of a dignitary to make appropriate preparations is a common practice, even today.

In Matthew 11:10, these words are quoted by Christ as referring to John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the coming of the Savior. 

and suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.

Some scholars take God’s messenger in the previous verse to be a person distinct from “the lord” / “the messenger of the covenant” here; others hold that they are the same person.

Of those who claim that they are two separate individuals, some consider “the lord” / “the messenger of the covenant” to be divine, while others hold that in the text’s literal sense he is a messianic earthly ruler. This is because some biblical translations indicate that the word used here for “Lord” is ādôn, a common word that can refer to anyone whose status commands respect, and not YHWH, the personal name of God that is often rendered as “LORD.”

All that being said, the role this messenger will play seems to be more significant to the author than his identity. We are told the messenger will come suddenly, almost in an ominous way, as if the people will not have a chance to adequately prepare. Moreover, the messenger’s destination is very specific; he will come to the Temple.

Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?

Malachi warns the people that they will be held accountable. Since fidelity to the covenant is the standard by which the people are judged, it will be the character of their fidelity that determines whether they will be rewarded or punished by the messenger.

For he is like the refiner’s fire,

Gold and silver are purified by melting them and allowing the impurities to float to the surface (see Zechariah 13:9).

or like the fuller’s lye.

A fuller is a worker who makes woolen cloth by cleansing wool of oils, dirt, and other impurities, and making it thicker.  Lye is used by fullers to whiten the wool.

He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD. 

Judgment is passed on the priests, the sons of Levi. The searing punishment as described by the preceding metaphors is among the harshest described in the Bible.

However, note that the priests will be purified, not destroyed.

Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in days of old, as in years gone by.

The purpose of this purification, overseen by God’s messenger, is to transform the priests, making them once again worthy to offer sacrifice. This is a poignant note of hope: the sacrifice of the people, offered at the hands of these purified priests, will be pleasing to God once more.

Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day,

According to biblical tradition, Elijah did not die but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). Here, Malachi says that Elijah will return before “the day of the Lord,” a concept that has a long theological history in Jewish tradition. It refers to a time in the future when the reign of God will be definitively established on earth. This would include reward for the faithful but also judgment for the unrighteous.

While Jewish tradition interprets this prophecy of Elijah’s return literally, in Matthew 11:14, Jesus reiterates that John the Baptist is this awaited messenger: “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come.”

to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers,

This forerunner of the Messiah will have the ability to reach the hearts of the people, not just their minds, effecting true reform.

lest I come and strike the land with doom.

The last words of the entire Old Testament are a threat and a curse. In portions of his prophecy omitted by the lectionary, Malachi has pointed out to the people that this threat is actually what the people deserve, based on their infidelity. However, in his mercy, God has offered an opportunity to repent and the hope of restoration.

This solemn conclusion to the Jewish scriptures paves the way for Christ to come and break the bonds of this curse, bringing with him an equally powerful blessing: the blessing of adoption as God’s children.

Gospel – Luke 1:57-66, 80

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child
she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child,
they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply,
“No. He will be called John.”
But they answered her,
“There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,”
and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed,
and he spoke blessing God.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
“What, then, will this child be?”
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the desert until the day
of his manifestation to Israel.

Today’s gospel reading recounts the birth, circumcision, and naming of John the Baptist. Earlier in Chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel, the priest Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel, who informed him that despite his wife Elizabeth’s barrenness and the advanced age of both of them, she would bear a son, and his name would be John.

The birth of John the Baptist shares significantly in the meaning of Christ’s birth, as Saint Augustine explains in the breviary:

“The Lord willed to announce to men His own coming through the Baptist, lest if He appeared suddenly, they would fail to recognize Him. John represented the Old Covenant and the Law. Therefore he preceded the Redeemer, even as the Law preceded and heralded the new dispensation of grace.”

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.

Elizabeth had been long barren and was now old. John’s birth is seen as extraordinary, even miraculous, and is attributed to God’s mercy.

When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,

Because Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful Jews, they have their son circumcised on the eighth day, just as the law prescribes (Leviticus 12:4). In addition to the actual circumcision, the ceremony included prayers and the naming of the child.

Note that it is the neighbors and relatives who determine the child’s name, an indication that the community — and not just the immediate family — had a stake in this child. The practice of neighbors naming a child wasn’t unheard of at the time (see Ruth 4:17).

but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”

Elizabeth opposes the name offered by the relatives and neighbors, and asserts that the baby’s name will be John, which means “God is gracious.”

She is, of course, obeying the instructions that the angel gave her husband.

But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”

The relatives presume that the boy’s identity is linked with his family, but his parents know that he is chosen, set apart for a special mission.

So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed.

When the angel Gabriel informed Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear him a son, Zechariah asked, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Whether as a sign for Zechariah, a consequence for his lack of faith, or both, he is rendered speechless “until the day these things take place.”

The fact that the neighbors now make signs to Zechariah indicates that he may have been deaf as well as mute. His confirmation of the seemingly random name amazes everyone.

It’s unclear why they wouldn’t have consulted with Zechariah about the name from the start, via writing. He may not have been of sound mind, perhaps because his condition had been the result of a stroke or palsy — if true, his sudden coherence would add to the sense of amazement.

Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.

Zechariah’s speech was restored when he complies with the instructions God sent him through the angel. Note that he doesn’t seem to harbor any resentment about being struck mute: his first words are to bless God.

Baby John is but eight days old and has already been a source of tremendous blessings for both of his parents.

Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea.

The neighbors are frightened by what has transpired, not because they did not believe, but because they believed and trembled — whereas they should have believed and triumphed. This displays how greatly the people had strayed from their appointed course as God’s chosen people, and how in need they were for John’s message of repentance (and Jesus’ messiahship).

All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.

The people did not know what to make of what had happened, but they were convinced that God had great designs for this child.

This question is answered by the canticle of Zechariah, not included in today’s reading, in which he both blesses the Lord and explains the significance of his son’s birth (Luke 1:68-79).

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.

In preparation for his prophetic mission, John went to live in the wilderness — the place traditionally considered a testing ground — in order to strengthen his spirit for the task ahead. This is not a sand desert but rather a barren steppe with bushes and basic vegetation. It contains many caves which can provide shelter.

When John reaches adulthood, his will be the voice of one crying out in the desert preparing the way of the Lord.

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