February 2, 2014, Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
On this Feast of the Presentation, the Lord comes to his Temple. But this time he comes not in a cloud of glory on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, but in the meekness and humility of a baby. Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day of his little life to fulfill the Old Testament law (Lev 12:3). His coming to the Temple is anticipated by the prophet Malachi in the first reading for today.
At the beginning of this passage, Malachi announces that the Lord is sending a messenger, “my messenger,” a forerunner who will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord himself (3:1). But immediately after this announcement, he tells us that “the messenger of the covenant” will come, who is identified as the Lord himself. The prophet explains the forerunner messenger more completely in 4:5-6. The forerunner will come as Elijah, to initiate a ministry of reconciliation, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and children to their fathers. After Elijah comes, the day of the Lord will arrive.
Profane vs. Pleasing Sacrifice
To get a full picture of what’s going on in this passage, a little context will help. Early in the prophecy of Malachi, the Lord accuses the priests and Levites (those responsible for the ministry of Temple worship) of profaning the Temple sacrifices, making a mockery of true worship. Instead of offering pure and unblemished animals to the Lord, they have been sacrificing blind and lame animals—a serious insult to the Lord (Malachi 1:8).These acts demonstrates where their hearts are—far from faithfulness to the Lord. The Lord invokes his special covenant with the Levites (2:5) to ground his response to their offensive behavior. The Levites were especially called by God and so ought to have been especially faithful.
In Malachi 3, the Lord is announcing the “day of his coming,” the coming of the Lord to enforce the covenant agreements he has with the Levites. The Lord will come to judge and to purify, to mend his relationship with his priestly family. Repeatedly in the New Testament the concept of worshipping with a pure heart is emphasized. Jesus teaches us to be reconciled with one another before we worship (Matt 5:23-24). He describes how the Lord desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13). St. Paul tells that real fidelity to the Lord is a matter of the heart, not just a matter of external practices (Rom 2:29). The Lord wants his people to offer pleasing sacrifices from a pure heart, not profane sacrifices coming from a duplicitous heart.
Two Metaphors for Judgment
Malachi describes the judgment of the Lord using two powerful metaphors. The first metaphor focuses on refining people in the way that precious metals are refined, with an especially hot fire. The Lord’s purpose in judgment is not to destroy his people, but to purify them, to make them holy by his judgment. He wants to restore them, not to destroy them. (You can watch the process of refining gold here) The second metaphor also highlights a process of purification: bleaching. The “lye” used for bleaching here is most likely vegetable lye, a caustic alkaline substance derived from certain kinds of plant ash. This chemical would have been used by “fullers” for bleaching fibers for cloth. Fullers weren’t exactly laundrymen. Rather, they were responsible for taking partially processed fibers and preparing them to be made into cloth, by cleansing them from natural oils and dirt, so they could by dyed. As with refining, the metaphor of bleaching focuses on the purifying power of God’s judgment, not its destructive force.
Restoration and Fulfillment
This whole passage points to God’s desire to restore a right relationship with his people. It looks to the “days of old” with fondness, as a time of covenant love and fidelity. The roles of the forerunner and the divine messenger are about reconciliation and restoration, bringing God’s people back to him. This passage looks forward to fulfillment in the New Testament. John the Baptist comes in the spirit and power of Elijah, as the forerunner (Matt 17:10-13). Jesus comes to the Temple as the “messenger of the covenant,” first as a little baby and later as a suffering king. He comes to the Temple to teach, to worship, and to cleanse it from the money-changers. Jesus comes to restore God’s relationship with his people and to bring it to a whole new level.
We can draw several conclusions from this passage in Malachi: God takes his loving relationship with us very seriously and he expects us to do the same. He desires for us to worship him with a pure heart—offering a pleasing sacrifice of praise. He doesn’t want to destroy us when we are unfaithful to him, but to restore us, to purify us, to bring us back. He is a God who keeps his promises to us and he helps us to keep our promises to him. May his refining fire and his heavenly bleach purify us!