Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; Psalm 25; Luke 1:57-66
'The Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his temple': it catches two aspects of spiritual experience and of the life of faith. On the one hand is the aspect of waiting, sometimes for a long time, for something to shift or change or emerge into the light, waiting for some insight or realisation, waiting, we might even say, for some revelation. On the other hand is the sense that when such things finally do happen, no matter how long they have been sought and no matter how deeply they have been desired, they happen 'quickly'. A bit like a death long expected, the moment in which the reality comes about always has a suddenness to it.
A story is told of a convent where a sister died at the age of 105: one of the sisters transmitted the news saying that her death was 'completely unexpected'. The truth in that comment catches this double sense, of something long expected nevertheless being marked, when it does come about, by an aspect of surprise, of suddenness. If we are tempted to be philosophical we might say that what we are talking about is a substantial or even a metaphysical change. Reality is not the same afterwards as it was before. That is true of anything that happens, of course, but here we are talking about radical changes that register with us: the world is a different place and we are aware of it. Even if we have been preparing and waiting, the reality, when it comes, is beyond anything for which we were prepared, beyond anything for which we waited. The world feels different afterwards.
So with the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. They are fulfilled because God is faithful but they are fulfilled in ways beyond any expectation because it is God who is acting here. The prophet Malachi, the last voice of the Christian Old Testament, tells us that the Lord's messenger will purify the people and refine them. He will prepare a worthy priesthood to offer worthy sacrifices. His coming will be preceded by that of Elijah, a prophet sent to prepare his way, and to do it by turning the hearts of fathers to their children and of children to their fathers.
All this is fulfilled in the birth of John the Baptist, the one who is Elijah and the messenger of the Lord. It is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ, the one who is the Messiah, the Lord come to visit His people. Within the domestic scene in the hill country of Judea, where the parents of John the Baptist argue with their kinsfolk about what name this child should have, we see this metaphysical or substantial change taking place. The world will never be the same again, not just in the ordinary sense in which this is true of any change. The world will never be the same again in a radical sense. The foundations of the world are shifted with these two births. Humanity is established in a new relationship with God as a result of these two births. What, then, will these children be? And we know something of the answer to that question
To adapt the haunting phrase from the first reading, the heart of the Father which is eternally turned to His Only Son is now turned also towards us, revealed in the love of the One who is coming. And that love is revealed so that our hearts might be turned towards Him. The refiner's fire and the fuller's alkali, purifying and cleansing, come to us in the form of love, they work on us in the way love does, they call to us in the way love does, they cleanse and strengthen us in the way love does.
It is what we have always wanted. It is what we have desired and looked for: light, and life, and love. Let us be open to the surprising ways in which these promises are to be fulfilled in our lives. No matter how long we have lived and prayed and waited there is always, still, this moment when the Lord we have been seeking will come to us, His temple, and will come suddenly.