The prophet Malachi and Advent

Today is the liturgical memorial for the prophet Malachi, whose name is literally ‘my messenger’ or ‘my angel,’ and who is the one who foretold both Christ and John the Baptist. This is Malachi’s brief line in the Roman martyrology:

“Commemoration of Saint Malachi the Prophet, who after the the Babylonian exile announced the great Day of the Lord and His Advent into the Temple and the perpetual offering everywhere of an unblemished oblation in His Name.”

Roman martyrology, December the 18th

Malachi’s is the eminent Messianic prophecy. In the very first chapter, we hear of the malignancy of the Hebrew priesthood of the second Temple, whose sacrifices were never quite worthy of God. And God declared that a purer sacrifice was being offered Him by the gentiles. In this prophecy, the Church sees herself and her own offering: 

“To you, priests, that care so little for My renown. Ask you what care was lacking, when the bread you offer at My altar is defiled, ask you what despite you have done Me, when you write down the Lord’s table a thing of little moment? What, no harm done, when victim you offer in sacrifice is blind? No harm done, when it is lame or diseased? Pray you, says the Lord of hosts, make such a gift to the governor yonder, will he be content? Will he make favourites of you? Ay, says the Lord of hosts, the guilt is yours. To the divine presence betake you, and sue for pardon; which of you finds favour with him? Never a man of you but must be paid to shut door, light altar-fire; no friends of Mine, says the Lord of hosts, no gifts will I take from such as you. No corner of the world, from sun’s rise to sun’s setting, where the renown of Me is not heard among the Gentiles, where sacrifice is not done, and pure offering made in My honour; so revered is My Name, says the Lord of hosts, there among the Gentiles…

Malachias, 1: 7-11

The sacrifice of the Gentiles coming a few centuries in the future is, of course, the One Sacrifice of Christ. The condemnation of the priests continues into chapter two of Malachi, which condemns them for not teaching the people well, which had resulted in old evils returning to the restored community after the exile. The great evil mentioned here seems to be the dismissing or divorcing of Hebrew wives in order to make room for foreign wives from other religions, which as we know from Ezra and Nehemiah was a major preoccupation of the enforcers of the Law of Moses in the restored Jewish community. 

“Faithfully they handed on tradition, the lie never on their lips; safe and straight was the path they trod at my side, and kept many from wrong-doing. No utterance like a priest’s for learning; from no other lips men will expect true guidance; is he not a messenger to them from the Lord of hosts? That path you have forsaken; through your ill teaching, how many a foothold lost! Nay, says the Lord of hosts, you have annulled My covenant with Levi altogether. What wonder if I have made you a laughing-stock, a thing contemptible in all men’s sight, priests that so ill kept my command, gave award so partially? [Have we not all one Father, did not one God create us all? No room, then, for brother to despise brother, and unmake the covenant by which our fathers lived.] Here is great wrong in Juda, here are foul deeds done by Israel and Jerusalem! Juda, that was once content to be set apart for the Lord, has profaned that holy estate, has taken wives that worship a god he knew not.

Malachias, 2: 6-10

We must remember that the great and ongoing problem in the Old Testament was idolatry; the law against taking foreign wives was not simply about ‘watering down’ the blood of the patriarch Abraham but also about allowing idolatry to thrive within the Holy Land and among the families of the Chosen People. And now we come to the prediction of the Messiah, and the Herald of the Messiah, even Elias (Elijah).

See where I am sending an angel of Mine, to make the way ready for My coming! All at once the Lord will visit His temple; that Lord, so longed for, welcome herald of a divine covenant. Ay, says the Lord of hosts, He is coming; but who can bear the thought of that advent? Who will stand with head erect at His appearing? He will put men to a test fierce as the crucible, searching as the lye that fullers use. From His judgement-seat, He will refine that silver of his and cleanse it from dross; like silver or gold, the sons of Levi must be refined in the crucible, ere they can offer the Lord sacrifice duly performed. Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings of Juda and Jerusalem, as He did long since, in the forgotten years. Come I to hold assize, not slow to arraign the sorcerer, the adulterer, the forsworn, all of you that deny hired man his wages, widow and orphan redress, the alien his right, fearing no vengeance from the Lord of hosts.

Malachias, 3: 1-5

All of this judgement and redress is designed to answer the call for justice, which is given at the end of this chapter, for honest people wondered (as they do today) why good people suffer and bad people thrive. And did Christ not indeed answer this question amply, with His emphasis on charity and care of the poor and the downtrodden, and finally by His joining the suffering poor and being downtrodden Himself?

“Complain you did: ‘Who serves God serves Him for nothing; what reward is ours for keeping command of His, attending with sad mien the Lord of hosts? Here are proud folk more to be envied than we, ill-doers that yet thrive, abusers of His patience that escape all harm!‘ So they used to talk among themselves, His true worshippers, till at last the Lord gave them heed and hearing; and now He would have a record kept in His presence of all that so worshipped Him, all that prized His renown.”

Malachias, 3: 14-16

And then comes the wonderful ending of this book – all about the Day of the Lord – when evil will be finally condemned and the Just will find reward. Little would Malachy have known that that dread Seat of Judgement would be a wooden cross. 

“Trust me, a day is coming that shall scorch like a furnace; stubble they shall be before it, says the Lord of hosts, all the proud, all the wrong-doers, caught and set alight, and neither root nor branch left them. But to you that honour My Name there shall be a sunrise of restoration, swift-winged, bearing redress; light-hearted as frisking calves at stall you shall go out to meet it, ay, and trample on your godless enemy, ashes, now, to be spurned under foot, on that day when the Lord of hosts declares Himself at last. Yours to keep the law ever in mind, statute and award I gave to assembled Israel through Moses, that was My servant. And before ever that day comes, great day and terrible, I will send Elias to be your prophet; he it is shall reconcile heart of father to son, heart of son to father; else the whole of earth should be forfeit to My vengeance.”

Malachias, 4