“The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart, the earth and all it contains will be burnt up.”
A striking feature of prophecy in Holy Scripture is its tendency to pass back and forth between weal and woe; between consolation and rebuke; between promise and threat. This feature also marks the Advent season, which more than any other is a season of prophecy. Advent prophesies, or prepares us for, the coming of Christ. He will come both as a baby at Christmas, and also at the end of time. Certainly we find great consolation in the thought of baby Jesus - God with us - accompanied by Mary and Joseph and shepherds and Angels and ox and ass. But the thought of this same Jesus coming in power at the end of the world, as portrayed by St. Peter in our second reading, is distinctly alarming, even terrifying. So Advent is a time not just to calm and sooth us, but also a time to stir us up. Advent is given us in order to inject a renewed sense of urgency into our lives. And we do need something or someone to jerk us out of the torpor of sin, out of our moral and religious mediocrity. But also: we need to know that we have something utterly wonderful to look forward to; something worth living for, something worth dying for. We need to know too that if God hates sin, he loves us, and he has proved that, and ever continues to prove it. One day he will demonstrate it for each one of us finally.
In the readings set for today’s Mass we have three prophecies, one from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament.
We start with Isaiah, from the beginning of the second part, Chapter 40. Here the Prophet announces his message of unambiguous consolation. It’s addressed to the Jewish people in exile. Jerusalem has been destroyed, its land devastated, its people slain, or enslaved, or carried away to a foreign land. We know the passage very well, not least because it’s set to music by Handel at the beginning of his Messiah Oratorio. Yes, it’s beautiful, uplifting, positive, hopeful. And it’s all the more so because of the dire threats that immediately preceded it at the end of Chapter 39. That’s so typical of Isaiah, which begins in Chapter 1 with a sharp warning of coming disaster. Again and again in Isaiah we read passages of blood-curdling rebuke. Several times we hear the refrain: “After all this, his anger is not spent; no, his hand is raised up still!” (5:25; 9:12ff). And then, almost bewilderingly, without any warning, and again and again, the tone changes, and we have passages promising wonderful, unheard-of joys to come, beyond all expectation or hope. And sometimes, even more bewilderingly, we’re not quite sure, as we read, whether the general import of a particular passage is to admonish us or to console us. But again and again in Isaiah, often very obscurely, but sometimes quite clearly, we find both sorts of prophecy coalescing around the figure of a coming Messiah. In a way that is left unexplained, he will be from God; he will even be identified with God. He will be both consoling and terrible. He will bring both destruction and restoration. He will punish sin, and put this present age to an end; but also he will inaugurate a new age; far better; truly ruled by God in holiness and happiness forever.
Today’s passage from Isaiah was chosen, presumably, because it’s quoted in today’s Gospel. St. Mark starts his Gospel not with an infancy narrative but with the figure of St. John the Baptist, preaching repentance in preparation for the public appearing of the Messiah.
St. Mark tells us that he quotes from Isaiah, and so he does. But before he gets there, he inserts also a verse from Malachi, the last of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way. Malachi himself later identifies this messenger with the Prophet Elijah. And as the Gospel writers make clear, John the Baptist was the fulfilment of that prophecy: he was the promised Elijah, preparing the way for the Messiah.
And so into the very prophecy of consolation from Isaiah St. Mark has inserted a text evoking foreboding, even terror. For Malachi goes on to specify what will happen when the Lord himself appears. He will purge his temple and his people with fire, or cleanse them with corrosive bleach. Malachi does not dwell much on the blessing the Lord will bring with him. He ends his book by stating what we deserve, what must happen were it not for the purifying fire: he will come and strike his land with a curse (Mal 3:24).
Prepare the way of the Lord! St. John the Baptist does that by fierce and uncompromising denunciation. St. Matthew supplies some words of his that Mark omits. Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? ... Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree, so that any tree failing to produce good fruit will be thrown into the fire... His winnowing fan is in his hand; he will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with a fire that never goes out (Mt 3:7-12).
If the message of Advent, the message we proclaim, is both consoling and threatening, both comforting and terrifying, does that mean that it’s not unambiguously Good News? No: let me insist. The Gospel is indeed Good News, “the Good News”, as St. Mark says, “about Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Jesus comes as our Saviour. He comes precisely not to leave us in our sin and wretchedness, but to pull us out, to lift us up to very great things, to our glorious and heavenly destiny. Whatever in us he finds that is negative and worthless, he will indeed purge away. We want him to do it! We need him to do it! He will do it by the cleansing, healing bath of the Holy Spirit, who is divine love poured into our hearts, making his home within us. But whatever in us that Jesus finds is positive, and good, and noble, he will bring to its promised fulfilment. For Jesus came to raise us up to the status of his own divine Sonship; to give us a share in his own divine life.