In my homily yesterday, I quoted these words of Jesus in regard to Saint John the Baptist:
All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:13-15).
From these words, a few people received the impression that I implied that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah. This is, of course, not what I meant and is certainly not Jesus said.
This misinterpretation is not new to our day, and is one that Saint Jerome confronted in his Commentary on Matthew. He said:
So John the Baptist is called Elijah, not in accordance with foolish philosophers and certain heretics who introduce the topic of metempsychosis (transmigration of souls) but because, according to other evidence of the gospel, he came in the spirit and goodness of Elijah and had either the same grace or power of the Holy Spirit. The austerity of their life and firm resolve were equally strong in Elijah and in John. Both lived in the desert. The former girded himself with a belt of skins, and the latter had a similar belt. The former was forced to flee because he accused Ahab and Jezebel of the sin of impiety in their lives. John was beheaded because he accused Herod and Herodias of unlawful marriage. There are those who think therefore that John is called Elijah because, just as Elijah would lead the way in the second coming of our Savior (according to Malachi) and would announce that the judge is coming, so John acted at the first coming and because each was a messenger of the first or second coming of our Lord (2.11.15).
This is why the Lord said to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, that his son would go before the Lord “in the power and spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteousness, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).