33d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nov. 13, 1977
Mal 4: 1-2a
St. Andrew’s, Upper Arlington, Ohio
On the Nov. 12-13 weekend, I was ministering to Boy Scouts and preached to them with a barebones outline—which I also used at a later parish Mass. From the archive comes this homily preached when I was a deacon.
Early in the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet, the troubled prince of Denmark is conversing with two friends when a ghost suddenly appears. The spirit beckons Hamlet follow it, and Hamlet feels some connection between the specter and his recently deceased father. Despite their fearful warnings, the prince leaves his friends and pursues the apparition. All of which leads one of Hamlet’s companions to mutter a now famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I, iv. 90).
The prophet Malachi lets his hearers and us know that something is also rotten in the state of Israel. “Behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts…” (4:1).
Malachi is the last of the OT prophets; he preached about 450 years before Christ. In today’s verse and a half, he uses a style called technically “apocalyptic,” as in the NT book of the Apocalypse.
The apocalyptic style is a characteristic of times of crisis. When everything seemed to be going wrong, when the bad guys seemed to be winning, when the saints seemed most oppressed, Jewish and early Christian writers resorted to a kind of ancient science fiction to describe colorfully all the terrible evils of the day. But not just the evils. The key point is that the Lord of hosts is still in charge! He is going to act amid earth-shaking terrors that destroy the present world: “burning like an oven, leaving neither root nor branch”—do you see where we get our popular imagery for the end of the world and the last judgment? The Lord is going to save those who fear his name, inaugurating a new age in which his chosen ones are top dogs: “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its rays” (4:2a).
If Malachi had been an Irishman instead of a Jew, he might have prophesied thus:
God’s plan made a hopeful beginning
But man spoiled his chance by sinning.
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory,
But at present the other side’s winning.
Well, what was so lousy about Malachi’s times? From the 3 main chapters of his book, we learn that Jerusalem is plagued by divorce and dangerous remarriages between Jews and pagans, by a corrupt priesthood that is ignorant, lax, and greedy, and by social oppression such as dishonest business tactics and the enslavement of the poor. To those who engage in such sinful activities, Malachi promises in the Lord’s name swift justice in the day of the Lord, a day like a burning oven that destroys chaff and purifies gold. The heat will also bring swift justice to the poor and oppressed; it will be like the sun: warm, bright, life-giving, healing, and purifying.
Do Malachi’s words carry meaning today? If poverty and social oppression, public corruption, and unfaithful family situations still abound, yes, Malachi speaks to us today. The unfaithful, the corrupt, and the oppressors he warns: Clean up you act! Cherish your family. Work honestly and hard. Pay a fair wage. Help your brother: liberate him from discrimination, unemployment, decaying cities, a polluted environment, and abortion.
The poor and the oppressed, Malachi encourages. He advises them that the Lord does care, and he will save them. He doesn’t tell them to stand around waiting for the Lord. If I may allude to the other 2 readings of this afternoon, from St. Paul and St. Luke, God’s poor and oppressed are to work, to make hard choices, to be patient amid confusion (for there are no instant answers, no simple solutions), and to give testimony to their faith in the lord even tho they are oppressed on account of his name.
|Paschal candle, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC|
So, the other side’s winning, and something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. Yet I trust in God’s glory winning out, for the “other side” is sin, and the rot is the corruption of death. But we have a risen Savior who has conquered both sin and death. He is symbolized by the paschal candle always in our sanctuary. He is our Sun of righteousness, and he heals us.