Friday of the Fourth Week of Advent

December 23, 2016 / By: Kimberly J. Vrudney

As we barrel towards Christmas, knowing that the one for whom our hearts are longing will be arriving imminently, today’s text invites us one final time to pause: “[W]ho can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:2). The sentiment is shared by the prophet Amos, who wails:

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; . . .Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18, 20).

The Hebrew prophets shared the view that the day of the Lord’s coming was a day of reaping—when those who oppressed the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the leper would find their just end. Today, the liturgical season encourages us to stop, one final time, and to assess where we stand. Are we participating on the side of justice and mercy? Or are we participating on the side of exploitation and oppression?

Rachel Farbiarz, a 2008 writing fellow of the American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to alleviating hunger, poverty, and disease among people living in the Global South, helps to enliven the contemporary imagination to the ancient Jewish understanding captured in today’s texts, both Hebrew and Greek, by drawing from a Talmudic exchange imagined between the wise third-century Rabbi Joshua bar Levi and the prophet Elijah:

Rabbi Levi beseeched the prophet to divulge when the Messiah would come. Not one to gratuitously expend his prophetic prowess, Elijah directed Rabbi Levi to inquire of the Messiah for himself. ‘Where is the Messiah to be found?’ Rabbi Levi persisted. ‘At the gates of the City,’ Elijah replied. ‘And by what sign shall I recognize him?’ Rabbi Levi asked. ‘He is sitting among the lepers,’ Elijah explained, ‘untying and changing their bandages one at a time: He is the one who tends to the lepers sore by sore.’

Rabbi Levi went to the city’s gates and there found a man who tenderly cleaned and wrapped the lepers’ fetid wounds. ‘When will you redeem us as the Messiah?’ Rabbi Levi asked. ‘Today,’ the apparent Messiah answered.

Rabbi Levi returned to Elijah informing him that the Messiah had spoken untruthfully—since he had not yet come. ‘What did he say to you?’ Elijah pressed. ‘He said he would come “today.”’ ‘You misunderstood,’ Elijah rejoined. ‘He did not say that he would come “today.” He instead quoted for you the verse from Psalms that instructs: The Messiah will come “today—if only you will listen to God’s voice.”’

 Farbiarz interprets the “weighty implications of this story.”

The most holy work resides in the tender care for those whose affliction renders them cast out, at the margins of society, sitting at the city’s gate. And the mark of the most holy man is that he changes the reviled lepers’ bandages one by one, sore by sore. In doing so, he validates the shared humanity between them. He wordlessly communicates his esteem for the bandaged individual, who—like the Messiah himself—is simply and miraculously flesh created from dust, formed in God’s image. Unless and until each person thusly heeds ‘God’s voice,’ implies the Messiah’s terse response to Rabbi Levi, the Redemption will surely remain beyond our collective reach.

The rabbi’s words take us out of liturgical into real time, as we continue to wait for the second coming. We pine away, waiting for Jesus to return, forgetting Teresa of Avila’s lyrical admonition,

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Perhaps we have been waiting for over two millennia because we fail to fully live into the resurrected life into which we are baptized. So today, returning to liturgical time, we rightly mourn with the prophets, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:2). “Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:20). 

Kimberly Vrudny, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology (drawing from Rachel Farbiarz, “The Jewish Response to HIV/AIDS,” for the American Jewish World Service)