Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent
(Malachi 3:1-4.23-24; Luke 1:57-66)
In Luke’s gospel John the Baptist clearly takes the place of Elijah, the prophet associated with fire. He warns the people that unless they reform and do good works, they will be cut down like trees “and thrown into the fire.” In this way John goes before the Lord, as his father Zechariah proclaims in his song of jubilation at his naming, “to prepare his ways.”
Jesus will not take up John’s message of the primacy of divine retribution for evil. Rather, his preaching will be dominated by the image of God as the human’s savior. Although he will not shrink from mentioning God’s power to cast a sinner into hell, Jesus will stress God’s love. God, he will say, is like the shepherd who searches out the lost sheep.
Since love too has been looked upon as a kind of fire, we might try to distinguish between the fire of wrath and the fire of love. Fire can destroy dispassionately, and it can purify with all compassion. John, following Elijah, will use blazing images to warn us of the punishment that dissolute living precipitates. God’s love, incarnate in Jesus, is like a surgeon’s laser beam. Its flame will not harm but heal and make us whole.