For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;…he will purify the descendants of Levi…. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents….
—Malachi 3:2–4; 4:5–6
These words from the prophet Malachi are the last words in our Old Testament, and they provide a perfect segue to the New Testament. They describe the one who will be the fitting precursor for any coming Messiah. Christians have, of course, usually applied this passage to John the Baptist, as Jesus himself and the Gospel writers already had done. But the text has even more significance: In a very few verses it succeeds in charting the appropriate sequencing of the Word of God. When the Scriptures are used maturely, and they become a precursor to meeting the Christ, they proceed in this order:
- They confront us with a bigger picture than we are used to, “God’s kingdom” that has the potential to “deconstruct” our false world views.
- They then have the power to convert us to an alternative worldview by proclamation, grace and the sheer attraction of the good, the true and the beautiful (not by shame, guilt or fear which are low-level motivations). “Attraction not promotion,” said Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- They then console us and bring deep healing as they “reconstruct” us in a new place with a new mind and heart.
Malachi does this. He describes the work of the God Messenger as both “great and terrible,” both wonderful and threatening at the same time. It is not that the Word of God is threatening us with fire and brimstone, but rather it is saying that goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment. If we do the truth and live connected in the world as it really is, we will be blessed and grace can flow, and the consolation will follow from the confrontation with the Big Picture. If we create a false world of separateness and egocentricity, it will not work and we will suffer the consequences even now. In Catholic theology we call this our tradition of “natural law.” In short, we are not punished for our sins, but by our sins!
We are always the “stable” into which the Christ is born anew. All we can really do is keep our stable honest and humble, and the Christ will surely be born.
Find a Gospel passage that you look to for consolation and let it challenge you.