By Innocent Nwafor
1. The Reality on ground
“Wherever the African is, there is religion,” says John Mbiti, a prominent Christian Theologian from Kenya. Perhaps, there is no place in Africa where the veracity of this statement is as evident as in Nigeria today. This could easily be attested to by the number of people one finds in different churches on Sundays and other days of worship. Think of the number of people who attend prayers in various adoration centres. One needs only to visit the Onitsha main market or Eke Awka at 12.00 noon and see how the whole activity of buying and selling stand still when the bell rings for “Angelus” prayer. Even the number of poster-adverts pasted on major streets and village pathways for one religious event or the other say a lot about the religiosity of our people. The motor parks and garages of transport companies are not left out as places of prayer, especially the form of casting and binding of evil spirits. Do we need to mention the regular “Prayer for Nigeria in Distress” with which the gate of heaven is being bombarded at the end of Holy Mass every day in various churches in the country? All these are pointers to the state of the human heart in search for the longed-for coming of …. A deliverer.
There is no doubt in Nigeria today that in the north, south, east and west, everybody is longing for a true deliverer. Everybody is complaining about corruption in the government, among the uniformed men and women, among the big and small companies, among the election umpires and the electorate. Some people have long maintained that in Nigeria today, there is no true democracy but “Selectocracy”. That means, the votes of the masses no longer count, but the Vote-counters’ ‘Count’ is what counts. People are terribly upset because of the high rate of insecurity. The menace of Kidnappers, herdsmen, Boko haram and armed bandits etc. Hence the present burning issue of the formation of a Security Outfit tagged “Operation Amotekun” by the Western Governors of Nigeria.
The promises of politicians and leaders for a better life, good roads, constant electricity, good jobs for our teaming young people, good health services have proven to be empty and deceitful. And some pastors with their prophecies of a better life through their prosperity evangelism and assurances of cure for all diseases, and even with promises of bringing the dead back to life seem to be ‘stealing the show’ from the politicians in terms of attracting great crowds. Sadly, this too is largely and speedily proving to be exploitative and business oriented, “’iwere nkea irie m ego’ kind of”. And people are becoming impatient and wiser. But the longing for … a deliverer and a more secure life perdure. No doubt, we are in a critical and trying time.
2. So, in the time of the Prophet Malachy
In today’s first reading, we are presented with the prophet Malachy, a name that means “my messenger”, who was called at a trying time for the people of Israel. He was sent to address some knitting problems arising from perceived delay from God in addressing the needs of the common people for a better life after the return from the Babylonian exile. The people were asking, why is the reconstruction of Israel after the return of her remnants from the Babylonian exile not happening fast? After all, the Lord promised them that “I will return to Zion and live in her midst. Jerusalem shall be called the Faithful City, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the Holy Mountain” (Zech 8:3). Again, cynically they ask, “Why does God allow the people who do evil to prosper; where is the God who does justice?” (cf Mal. 2:17). For the Jews of the time, it has been several years since they came back from exile and yet things are not moving, promises upon promises, yet the longed-for better life is not forth-coming. They were mainly seeing progress from the perspective of material development. They failed to perceive that they are annoying God by their lack of deep thought to see how their total trust in God is contributing to their problem. “You annoy the Lord with your discourses, and you dare say, ‘How did we annoy him’…” (Mal 2:17)
Again, as in our own time today, the same impatience and desire for a longed-for messiah are playing out here. As is often natural, people would tend to drift from the true worship of God to going for “gods” of “quick solution”. Everybody complains, but fail to think deeply to discover how each person is contributing to the problem by their lack of total commitment to God lived out in concrete love of God and neighbour.
3. Now the hard Talk
Here now is the response of God “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of me to clear the way: then suddenly the Lord for whom you long will enter the sanctuary.” The messenger of the covenant whom you so greatly desire is coming…. Who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? (see Malachy 3:1-2).
The first invitation is to see. “See, behold, look deeply, (Hebrew hinne). This is a call to think deeply about what they are complaining about and what they are longing for. It is an invitation for a sober reflection in order to find out if they really understand the truth of their situation.
It is like asking Nigerians today if they are truly reflecting deeply about the things they are praying for. People pray for better life. Has God not given us everything needed for a better and prosperous life for us and for our children? Has God not given us good health, good vegetation, access to water in abundance, good climate, no earthquakes, no winter, rather all-year green nature and fertile soil. What more are we looking for. We are looking for material prosperity, whereas we are the very ones that are blocking this prosperity for all because of selfishness and moral deficiency.
For Israel God says, see, I am sending a messenger who will remind you of this. And the messenger will have the characteristics of the prophet, Elijah.
4. The Messenger who prepares the way
That messenger sent to clear the way is understood in the New Testament to be John the Baptist. “About that time John the Baptist arrived in the desert of Judea proclaiming his message, ‘Change your Ways, the kingdom of heaven is near! (Matt 3:1-2). He is understood to be the new Elijah. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. And he will bring back many of the people of Israel back to the Lord (Lk 116). In that way, he will prepare the way for the coming of the messenger of the covenant with the Lord.
The story surrounding the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-66) is very touching. Whereas the relatives wanted the child to be named Zachariah after his father, the mother, Elizabeth, to the chagrin of everybody chose the name John. His father who at the instance was struck dumb expressed in writing that he was in support of his wife and that his name is John. What is in a name? John from Hebrew (Jochanan) means “JAHWEH is gracious”, in Igbo (Chidiogo).
This is understandable bearing in mind that Elizabeth conceived the child when nobody expected it again. And the father Zachariah sang a Canticle in praise the Lord: “…And you, my child, shall be called prophet of the Most High, for you shall go before the Lord to prepare the Way for him and enable his people to know of their salvation” (Lk 1:76f).
Both Elizabeth and Zachariah have truly thought deeply about the child they prayed for, the child they longed for. This deep thought is reflected in the name they chose for the child. “God is gracious”. In the name, and inferring from his canticle, the father tends to be saying, “My child, your birth is prophetic, you are born with a mission: to prepare the way for the Lord.
John understood the challenge of his father’s canticle. He prepared for it through prayer and fasting. He knew that the problem of his people is basically spiritual. A call for true conversion is what is needed. So, he began his mission with a call to conversion. He exercised his mission and paid supreme prize with his blood for it.
Till today, the Lord still wants messengers who will prepare the road for him. God has spoken from his sanctuary, “Gilead is mine, Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my washbasin; upon Edom I cast my sandal; over Philistia I shout in triumph.” But the question is “Who will take me to the fortified city?; who will lead me to Edom?” (cf Psalm 60:7-9). Each one of us is called to be a messenger clearing the path for the kingdom of God to reign wherever we may be. It is pertinent to ask, in which area of our national life am I preparing the way before the Lord to allow him reign? Have I thought deeply about my own name? What mission does it assign to me to accomplish. How am I assisting the Lord to conquer the fortress so that where the darkness of hatred is now reigning, the light of peace and love will overcome?
5. “Who can endure the day of his coming, who can stand when he appears? “(Mal 3:2).
It is significant to note, as the gospel of today shows, that Jesus is brought to the temple “when the time for their purification according to the law of Moses”(Ex 13:2, Lev 12:6) is completed. In this way the Lord whom Israel is seeking entered the sanctuary; the messenger of the covenant whom Israel so greatly desire (see Malachy 3:2). The purifier, the messenger of the covenant entered the sanctuary after the ceremonial and spiritual purification in obedience to the law had been completed. Mary and Joseph went to the temple to present the child to the priest and to offer the offering: a lamb, born that year and a young pigeon or a turtle dove. In the case of Joseph and Mary they offered two turtle doves because they could not afford a lamb. Among the Jews, every first born male is set aside and regarded as being “holy” to the Lord. The mother had to remain at home for 40 days for male and 80 for a female. During that long period the mother is regarded as being impure. It was after the purification that she could now go about her normal duties.
Here Mary and Joseph showed how humble and loyal they are to the Jewish law and custom. Another important figure of the gospel is Simeon, a very devout and righteous man who had been looking forward for the consolation of Israel. On taking the child in his arms, he sang his nunc dimities “Now Lord, let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. In Jesus, Simeon felt that his long waiting in hope and patience had finally been rewarded. Who knows for how long he had been praying. Who knows how many unfulfilled petitions he had endured. Who knows how many terrible experiences he had endured in his life time? Yet he trusted in the Lord. Today, his hope and dreams are fulfilled in this child he holds in his arms.
6. Take home Lesson
As we hope and pray for our longed-for messiah, we should know that we collectively and individually could be messengers whom the Lord wants to use in preparing the way, so that his light could come into the world. We could be another John the Baptist in our different families, villages, towns and state and even for the nation at large. Therefore, we are being invited to be that instrument with which the Lord can use to realize his salvation in the world.
As we pray for success and development, we need to realize that the most fundamental source of development is the development of the human heart. St John Paul II called it the civilization of the human heart. This begins with the fear of the Lord, respect and care for our fellow human being. No true development can occur where there is no peace and love among people living together in the same family, village, town, state and nation. To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
We have to reflect deeply and be thankful for the many blessings that God has given us. There are many untapped potentials for greatness in and around us. We need to encourage one another and work together in order to make these blessings translate into improved quality of life for everybody. We have to think deeply about the circumstances of our birth, our names, baptismal and family name. Some names given to us at birth or at baptism encapsulate historic realities and developmental energy that we have not yet opened up. Zachariah and Elizabeth chose the name ‘John’, God is gracious, for their child and John endeavoured to respond to that graciousness through his life, lived in total dedication in preparation of the way for Christ.
“The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.” (Vince Lombardi)