One of my favorite things about the season of Advent is the people we meet along the way. In the early days of Advent we have celebrated the Immaculate Conception of Mary and we remember St. Juan Diego, St. John of the Cross, St. Lucy and St. Nicholas. We’ve been hearing from Isaiah all along in our first readings, and he has more to say to us still before we hear of his words’ fulfillment on Christmas Day.
Then there’s the prophet Elijah, about whom we hear in today’s first reading. Tradition and Scripture tell us that Elijah didn’t die; he was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot on a whirlwind as his successor, Elisha, looked on. It was expected that one day he would return. And so ever since, even to this day, the Jewish people have left an empty place at the table for Elijah at every major celebration.
Jesus makes it clear, however, that Elijah has already returned. In today’s Gospel reading, we meet Jesus and the disciples coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration. They have just seen Elijah on the mountaintop along with Jesus and Moses. And so they ask Jesus, as they make their way down, about the return of Elijah. When he tells them that Elijah has already returned, but nobody recognized him, they realize that he is speaking of Saint John the Baptist, that other Advent character that we have been privileged to meet.
And it’s a bit of a foreshadowing. Just as the people missed Elijah’s return, so they will miss Jesus’ return too. The Resurrection is a sure sign of God’s love and presence in the world, but how many didn’t believe then, and how many still don’t believe! For people to come to know that Christ has come and lived and died and risen for us, Isaiah’s voice must still be heard. John the Baptist did that by crying out in the desert. Now it’s our turn.