Friday, April 20, 2007

Will Elijah Come Twice?

I frequently find some of my favorite pieces of information simply by pulling random books off the shelf and turning to random pages. This happened last night with one of my favorite (and most expensive) volumes on my shelf: James Scott's Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (Brill, 2001), p. 266.
I opened to an article on restoration eschatology in Rabbinic Judaism by Chaim Milikowsky and found a fascinating quote from a Rabbinic work I've never read (or heard much discussed): Seder Olam. This text, which is attributed to Rabbi Yose ben Halaphta (2nd cent A.D.), relates an ancient Jewish tradition that Elijah will come twice: once at the time of the Messiah, and again during the final Great Tribulation. It reads:

In the second year of Azariah (King of Israel) Elijah was hidden away and is not seen until the messiah comes. In the days of the messiah he will be seen and hidden away a second time and will not be seen until Gog will arrive. At present he records the deeds of all generations. (Seder Olam, chap. 17)

This is a fascinating quote, for it suggests that there was an expectation in ancient Judaism that Elijah would not only return, but that he would come twice: once during the days of the Messiah and then a second time during the time of "Gog." This second reference is a reference to the mysterious days of Gog and Magog described in Ezekiel 38-39, after the coming of the Messiah in Ezekiel 37. As many people are aware the days of Gog and Magog are linked in Jewish eschatology and the New Testament with the Great Tribulation that will precede the Final Judgment and the resurrection of the dead (see, e.g., Rev 20:7-10).

One reason this was so interesting to me was that I had already argued in my book on Jesus and the Tribulation that Jesus held John the Baptist to be the new Elijah and that there was a link between the persecution and death of John as Elijah and the eschatological tribulation (see chapter 3 on Mark 9:11-13; Matt 11:11-15). Here this link is confirmed by a rabbinic text of which I was totally unaware when I wrote the dissertation.

Moreover, the passage also is intriguing because it illuminates another quite baffling text in the book of Revelation, which describes the coming of two witnesses during a time of tribulation and persecution. One of these witnesses is described as an Eljiah figure, who "shuts the sky" so that "no rain may fall" just as Elijah did in the Old Testament (Rev 11:4-7). Unfortunately, the beast ascends from the bottomless pit and kills this new Elijah, along with his Moses-like counterpart. Clearly this is a time of tribulation...
Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, it is a well known fact that many orthodox Jews today are still waiting for the (first) coming of Elijah. This is particularly expressed through the tradition of the Jewish Passover seder, where a cup of wine is left for Elijah to drink when he comes. For Christians, Jesus declares that "Elijah has come" in the figure of John the Baptist (Mark 8:13). But perhaps there is room for agreement here, if we both somehow await Elijah's "Second Coming"? Just a thought, just speculation, but interesting nonetheless...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Holy Thursday, the Eschatological Passover, and the Flesh of the Lamb

One of the most fascinating “discoveries” I made during the course of writing my dissertation on Jesus (now published as Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile) was that there is a strong link between the eschatological tribulation—the suffering that many Jews expected to precede the coming of the Kingdom of God—and the eschatological Passover—the time of trial that was expected to set in motion the New Exodus. Indeed, one could even argue that the two are identical; just as the eschatological tribulation would set in motion the coming of the Kingdom, so too the eschatological Passover would inaugurate the coming of the New Exodus. In this New Exodus, so the prophets foretold, God would once again save his people in ways that paralleled the salvation he had brought to Israel in their liberation from Egypt, in the days of Moses (see Isa 11; Jer 3, 31; Ezek 36-37, etc). The key difference is that it would not be Moses, but the Messiah, who inaugurated the New Exodus, a messianic Exodus.

After making finding this, I was quite excited—and quite in awe of my own brilliance and originality—when one day I was reading one of the sections on eschatology in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 668-82) This fascinating section deals with such topics as the Parousia, the conversion of all Israel, the coming of the Antichrist, and the great tribulation that will precede the Second Coming. In the midst of reading, I was stunned to find that yet another of my “discoveries” had been preempted by the Church:

“Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers... [goes on to describe the eschatological tribulation] The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection.” (CCC 675-76)
I just about fell on the floor when I read this; what had taken me two years of meticulous research and reading of the Bible and ancient Jewish sources to discover was right here in the Church’s teaching. What had hit me like a lightning bolt was mentioned here, almost in passing, in the Catechism.

But I was not to be outdone. For my second major “discovery” was to link this eschatological Passover not only with Jesus’ suffering and death but with his actions at the Last Supper. The reason the link between tribulation and Passover is important is that it helps to explain why Jesus had to celebrate the Passover meal of the Last Supper with his disciples before his passion and death, which he had taught would inaugurate both the New Exodus and the coming of the Kingdom of God. The reason: just as the first Exodus was set in motion by the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, so too would the New Exodus be set in motion by a New Passover, the eschatological Passover sacrifice of Jesus himself. It was this sacrifice that he celebrated and set in motion at the Last Supper (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22, etc.) Pretty cool, huh?

Well, the Church has this one in the bag, too. During morning prayer today, I was praying the Scriptures for the feast of Holy Thursday. In my particular missal (the Daily Roman Missal, ed. by James Socias), the Scripture readings are prefaced by quotes from the Catechism. In the quote for today’s readings, I found a paragraph I have read many times over, but never noticed in quite this way:

By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. Jesus’ passing over to his father by his death and Resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom (CCC 1340).
Foiled again! I’m starting to think that the only “original” insights I’ve ever had about Scripture are the ones that are wrong. But that’s okay; maybe one day it will actually help me become humble.

Anyway, there are at least three reasons all of this is significant for today’s feast, the feast of the Lord’s Supper.

First, the connection between the new Passover and the Last Supper shows the eschatological significance of the first Eucharist. For it was the Last Supper—as the New Passover—that fulfilled the Jewish Passover, inaugurated the New Exodus, and anticipated the eschatological Passover of the Church into the glory of the Kingdom of God. This was no mere “farewell meal”; it was the eschatological turning point of the ages, the typological and eschatological event that inaugurated the coming of the age of salvation.

Second, it shows the true link between the sacrifice of Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom. Albert Schweitzer once (in)famously stated that Jesus threw himself on the wheel of history in order to force it to turn and bring in the Kingdom, but instead it crushed him. Balderdash. He threw himself on no wheel. Rather, he laid his body on the wooden table of the Upper Room and on the wooden altar of the Cross, and through these acts showed the world the only signs of God’s love that will ever suffice to move it one inch. This is why the Church can teach that “The Kingdom of God has come in Christ’s death and Resurrection”; indeed, “the Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper, and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst” (CCC 2816).

Third and finally, if Jesus is the eschatological Passover lamb of the New Exodus, then what are we called to do? How did the Israelites of the first Exodus respond? Well, first and foremost, they kept the feast of Passover each year in “remembrance” of what the Lord had done for them (Exod 12:14). We do this at every Eucharist, but today, on Holy Thursday, in a special way. But even more to the point: the sacrifice of the Passover was not completed simply by the death of the victim. That was not ultimately what God wanted. No, what he wanted was a covenant. Hence, the Israelites were commanded not only to kill the lamb, but to “eat the flesh” of the lamb (Exod 12:8). The sacrifice of the first Passover was not completed by the death of the victim, but by communion through the very flesh which had delivered them from death. So too today; we eat “the flesh of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” just as he commanded us (John 1:29; 6:55). And, we rejoice, as John said so many centuries ago: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9).

Many blessings on all of you during this Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum.