“And he shall go before him [the Lord God] in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people” (Luke 1:17). These words were spoken by the Archangel Gabriel to the the priest Zacharias, concerning his son, Saint John the Baptist.
The Archangel was referring to the prophecy of Malachias:
“Behold, I will send you Elias the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers: lest I come, and strike the earth with anathema” (Malachias 4:5-6).
Written about two centuries later, the Book of Ecclesiasticus similarly speaks of Elias (using the second person): “Who art registered in the judgments of times to appease the wrath of the Lord, to reconcile the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.” (Ecclus. 48:10)
These Old Testament prophesies were foretelling the return of Elias, who would come as herald of the Messias. We who live in the times of the New Testament know that they literally foretold the second coming of Jesus, for that is when Elias will come. In the Old Testament, many things that were prophesied about the “Day of the Lord” — that is, the Messianic era — seemed contradictory. On the one hand, the Messias was expected to be meek, humble, lowly: the suffering servant of Yahweh. On the other hand, he was prophesied to be a mighty conquerer, bringing all nations under his dominion, exercising judgment on a day of wrath. Having the benefit of Christian revelation, we now know that these apparently contradictory strains of Hebrew prophecy are not contradictory, but correspond perfectly to the first and second comings of Jesus: the former as the Victim-Priest, the latter as Judge of the quick and the dead.
The Prophet Elias did not die. He was, rather, taken up in a fiery chariot (cf. 4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:11). This is why the Lebanese (who celebrate his Festival with fireworks) call him “Saint Elias the Living.” It also explains, in part, the Jewish traditions of “Elijah’s Chair” and “Elijah’s Cup.”
Near the end of time, Elias will come and preach to the Jews, preparing them to accept Christ, which they will do. Thus, the mass conversion of the Jews is considered to be one of the signs of the end times, as Saint Augustine writes (City of God XX, 29):
It is a familiar theme in the conversation and heart of the faithful, that in the last days before the judgment the Jews shall believe in the true Christ, that is, our Christ, by means of this great and admirable prophet Elias who shall expound the law to them. For not without reason do we hope that before the coming of our Judge and Saviour Elias shall come, because we have good reason to believe that he is now alive; for, as Scripture most distinctly informs us, he was taken up from this life in a chariot of fire. When, therefore, he is come, he shall give a spiritual explanation of the law which the Jews at present understand carnally, and shall thus “turn the heart of the father to the son,” that is, the heart of fathers to their children; for the Septuagint translators have frequently put the singular for the plural number. And the meaning is, that the sons, that is, the Jews, shall understand the law as the fathers, that is, the prophets, and among them Moses himself, understood it. For the heart of the fathers shall be turned to their children when the children understand the law as their fathers did; and the heart of the children shall be turned to their fathers when they have the same sentiments as the fathers.
If Elias will come as the herald of the the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, the Baptist came to do the same in Our Lord’s first coming. Hence, he came “in the spirit and power of Elias.” Hence the Eastern Christians, who call Saint John the Baptist “the Forerunner,” call Elias “the second Forerunner.” He is second, not in his arrival on earth, but in the actual discharge of his vocation as precursor.
In bringing the Jews to Jesus Christ, Saints John and Elias are converting the wayward children of Israel back to their God: “the God of our Fathers,” as He is frequently called in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Messianic promises were originally made to “the fathers” — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the faithful of the Old Testament. These faithful forebears of the true religion looked forward with faith to the coming of the Messias. This is why Jesus could say that “Abraham your father rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). This is also why John the Baptist could say to the incredulous among them: “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” We gentile Christians are the “stones” that have become children of Abraham. As Saint Paul wrote to the Galatians “And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).
Knowing what forms the literal meaning of the passages in question, namely the spiritual rebirth of Israel in Christ — both at the beginning and the end of the New Covenant — I would like to interpret the passage in an “applied sense.” This is what the Church herself often does in the liturgy, as for instance, when she applies Psalm 118:32 to Saint Phillip Neri in the offertory antiphon for his Mass: “I have run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou didst enlarge my heart.” King David was not writing about Saint Phillip, but that great “Apostle of Rome” did, in fact, have a (literally, physically) enlarged heart that resulted from extraordinary mystical phenomena. The Church applies this passage to this saint.
Turning the hearts of fathers to the sons, in my “applied sense” means this: In times of greater fidelity to God’s Law, fathers see to the moral and spiritual well being of their sons (their “hearts”), as well as to their physical and intellectual well being. In times of great infidelity, such as those times when the Old Testament Israel needed the stern admonitions of prophets, the hearts of fathers are turned away from their sons’ moral and spiritual welfare. We live in such times today.
I do not consider it an exaggeration to say that a major portion of the crisis in society is a crisis of fatherhood. This pertains to fathers as heads of families, as well as the spiritual fatherhood vested in the clergy. Church and State are both experiencing a serious crisis in fatherhood, and in the more primordial notion of masculinity. It would be tiresome to prove this thesis, so I’m taking it here as axiomatic. (The ever deepening institutionalization of divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography, pedophilia, feminism, and homosexualism are indications of this crisis.)
What “turns the hearts of fathers” away from their sons that they need to be turned back? The answer to this question could lead us to consider virtually every kind of sin under the sun. All the seven deadly sins can do it, for these distract us from our final end (heavenly beatitude) and to the means of attaining that end (including living up to the obligations of our state in life). At the risk of amplifying sexual sins beyond their place in Catholic moral theology, I will focus on just one on the seven: lust.
Sexual sins are not the greatest of sins. (Unbelief is the greatest sin, according to Saint Thomas.) Those familiar with the Divine Comedy of Dante will recall that the famous adulterers, Paolo and Francesca, though damned, did not suffer the punishments reserved for the lower circles of hell. Heresy, schism, blasphemy, infidelity, and treason merited worse punishments. Some may object that Our Lady of Fatima said “most souls go to hell for sins of the flesh.” She did. But this in no way means that these are, in themselves, the worst sins. To illustrate, I’ll draw a comparison: You’re dead whether you die of the flu or ebola; more people die of the flu, but ebola is, in itself, a worse disease. The difference is that death does not admit of degrees, whereas hell does, so the greater seriousness of one’s sins matters there.
That said, there is something about lust that makes it particularly anti-paternal. Contrary to what most people think today — even most Catholics — the primary purpose of the marital act is the begetting of children. Beyond that, the primary purpose of marriage is to rear these children. In other words, marital union is the way men become “fathers” by begetting “sons” to whom they must turn their hearts. When physical pleasure becomes the primary objective and children are seen as a mere byproduct (perhaps even an unintended one), they are not as likely to be loved. The fathers’ hearts are not turned to the sons.
I will continue my study of this “applied sense” of Luke 1:17 next time.