Why did Michelangelo paint seven Old Testament prophets in the Sistine Chapel? Because Jewish prophets such as Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are important figures both in the Jewish faith and to Christians.
The Catholic Church recognizes this and includes almost every one of the Old Testament prophets1 in its liturgical calendar. While the major and minor prophets are not celebrated with solemnities, feasts, or memorials, they are still present in the liturgical calendar of the Church. The Church’s most recent complete collection of saints and blesseds, the Martyrologium Romanum,2 includes these great Jewish men of faith, and some of them are remembered in December.
The timing of those dates is surely not coincidental. Remembering the Old Testament prophets during Advent can help our understanding of Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. But what events inspired these six men to preach to their countrymen in the first place?
The prophets Nahum (celebrated December 1), Habakkuk (December 2), Zephaniah (December 3), Haggai (December 16), Malachi (December 18), and Micah (December 21) are all considered minor prophets in the Old Testament. Their six writings span a period of almost three hundred years, from approximately 720 B.C. for Micah to 450 B.C.3 for Malachi, with the other four prophets scattered in between those two dates. Some of these prophets predicted disaster because of the people’s unfaithfulness (Micah and Zephaniah), while one of them explained the meaning behind a disaster when it occurred (Nahum). Others reminded the people to look past recent disasters and return to the practice of the faith (Habakkuk, Haggai, and Malachi).
Dire warnings hardly seem appropriate for the joyous season of Christmas, but they are certainly appropriate for the penitential season of Advent. Each of these six prophets wanted to encourage people of faith to return to God, to repent of past sins, to recognize God’s presence even in their difficulties. But each of these prophets also offered messages that were obviously inspired by God to prepare the world for a Messiah, although they did not know His name.
Where will the Messiah come from?
King Herod the Great wanted to know the answer to that question, and the chief priests and scribes quoted Micah 5:2 to him in response. All Herod wanted to know was where to send his assassins; for us Christians, the same passage points much farther back in time.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
What kind of Messiah should we expect?
The prophet Zephaniah predicted terrible retribution by God because of His people’s faithlessness. But if his listeners thought that meant that God was distant and angry, Zephaniah (3:14, 17) taught them otherwise.
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! … The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.
Will the Messiah be a mighty warrior who brings violence and war?
Nahum (1:15) offered a different answer.
Behold, on the mountains the feet of him who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace!
Where is God when disaster seems imminent?
The people of Habakkuk’s time had experienced great suffering. Habakkuk (3:17-19) reminded them that God is present, not absent, in times of waiting, just as our Lord later showed us.
Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like deer’s feet, he makes me tread upon my high places.
Where is God when fear is overwhelming?
Did the prophet Haggai (2:4-5) know that some of the first words spoken by the Messiah4 would be in response to human fear? When he wrote these words, did he have some inspiration about how God’s Spirit would dwell within those who believe in that Messiah, to strengthen them?
Yet now take courage … all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; fear not.
What will be the sign that the Messiah is coming?
The prophet Malachi (4:5-6) made the following prediction.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.
That prophecy can only be understood with the help of the words of a major prophet who is celebrated in a different month: Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah (40:3) predicted the coming of one who would “prepare the way of the Lord”, and that helps us to recognize Saint John the Baptist hidden in Malachi’s words.
But that passage also reminds us of one of the critical tasks for every Catholic during Advent: to prepare our hearts for Christ as we remember his birth on Christmas. Not only do our hearts need to be softened toward unhappy family members, fearful friends, and disgruntled coworkers at Christmastime, those hearts also need to be turned toward Jesus Christ so that we can receive Him more completely.
Those great men of faith who were waiting for the Messiah hundreds of years before His birth can help us remember this amazing gift. That is, they can help us remember that God is waiting to dwell among and within us each Christmas—and every day of our lives—until He comes again.
1 The prophet Daniel is omitted from the calendar for an unclear reason.
2 Martyrologium Romanum, Editio Altera (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004).
3 The dates of the Old Testament prophets are widely debated. The dates used here are from Catholic Bible Dictionary, general ed. Scott Hahn (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday, 2009).
4 “Do not be afraid”: see Luke 5:10.
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