02 August 2009

'From Heaven You Brought Down Fire'—Prophet Elijah the Tishbite

Today, 20 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Prophet Elijah the Tishbite (believed to have lived in the 9th century BC). The events of St Elijah’s life are told in the books commonly known as 1 and 2 Kings (3 and 4 Kingdoms in the OSB, 3 and 4 Kings in Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton’s LXX trans., 3 and 4 Reigns in the NETS), but he appears again the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36—I shall confine my comments on this subject to my forthcoming post for that Feast). Here is the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], pp. 86-7):

A man who saw God, a wonderworker and a zealot for faith in God, Elias was of the tribe of Aaron, from the city of Tishba, whence he was known as ‘the Tishbite’. When Elias was born, his father Sabah saw angels of God around the child, swaddling it with fire and feeding it with flames. This was a foreshadowing of Elias’s fiery character and his God-given fiery powers. He spent his whole youth in prayer and meditation, withdrawing often to the desert to ponder and pray in tranquility. At that time, the Jewish Kingdom was divided into two unequal parts: the Kingdom of Judah consisted only of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with its capital at Jerusalem, while the Kingom of Israel consisted of the other ten tribes, with its capital at Samaria. The former kingdom was ruled by descendants of Solomon, and the latter by descendants of Jeroboam, a servant of Solomon’s. The prophet Elias came into the greatest conflict with the Israelite king, Ahab, and his evil wife Jezebel, for they worshipped idols and turned the people from the service of the one, living God. On top of this, Jezebel, being a Syrian, persuaded her husband to build a temple to the Syrian god, Baal, and appointed many priests to the service of this false god. Elias performed many miracles by the power of God: he closed the heavens, that no rain should fall for three years and six months; called down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice to his God, while the priests of Baal were unable to do this; brought rain from the heavens at his prayers; miraculously multiplied corn and oil in the widow’s house at Zarephath, and restored her dead son to life; prophesied to Ahab that the dogs would lick up his blood, and to Jezebel that the dogs would devour her—which came to pass; and performed many other miracles and foretold many events. He talked with God on Horeb, and heard His voice in the calm after the great wind. At the time of his death, he took Elisha and appointed him his heir as a prophet; he parted the Jordan with his mantle and was finally borne to heaven in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses. He appeared, together with Moses, to our Lord Jesus Christ on Tabor. At the end of the world, Elias will appear again, to break the power of antichrist (Rev. 11).

From the biblical account of St Elijah’s deeds, I have already referred to the story—which St Nicholas does not mention—of the ravens in 3 Kings 17:2-6 (LXX) in this post. However, there is another story, which St Nicholas only mentions briefly, that I would like to highlight. After the contest with the priests of Baal in 3 Kings 18 (LXX), St Elijah slays them, thus incurring the wrath of the idolatrous Jezebel. The Prophet first goes a day’s journey into the wilderness and, falling asleep under a juniper tree, is awakened by ‘the Angel of the Lord’ telling him to eat and drink from some miraculous provisions (3 Kings 19:4-5, LXX). He is told that this is to fortify him for a longer journey, and he thus ventures on for another 40 days to Mt Horeb. Then, in 3 Kings 19:9-13 (LXX), we read:

And he entered there into a cave, and rested there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said, ‘What doest thou here, Eliu?’ And Eliu said, ‘I have been very jealous for the Lord Almighty, because the children of Israel have foresaken thee: they have digged down thine altars, and have slain thy prophets with the sword; and I only am left alone, and they seek my life to take it.’ And he said, ‘Thou shalt go forth to-morrow, and shalt stand before the Lord in the mount; behold, the Lord will pass by.’ And, behold, a great and strong wind rending the mountains, and crushing the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the voice of a gentle breeze.

And it came to pass when Eliu heard, that he wrapt his face in his mantle, and went forth and stood in the cave; and, behold, a voice came to him and said, ‘What doest thou here?’

Now, it is fortunate that we have two excellent commentaries on this passage in the Philokalia: one by St Maximus the Confessor, in his ‘2nd Cent. on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1990], pp. 137-63), and another by St Gregory of Sinai, in his treatise, ‘On Prayer: Seven Texts’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], pp. 275-86). According to St Maximus:

74. It is by means of the more lofty conceptual images that the inner principle of Holy Scripture can be stripped gradually of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped. Then to the visionary intellect—the intellect which through the total abandonment of its natural activities is able to attain a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle—it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze. This was the case with Elijah, who was granted such a vision in the cave of Horeb (cf. I Kgs. 19:12). Horeb signifies fallow land just broken up, which is the firm possession of the virtues established through the new spirit of grace. The cave is the hidden sanctuary of wisdom within the intellect; he who enters it will mystically perceive the spiritual knowledge that is beyond perception, in which God is said to dwell. Therefore everyone who like Elijah truly seeks God will not only arrive at Horeb—that is, not only will he through ascetic practice attain the state of virtue—but will also enter the cave at Horeb—that is, as a contemplative he will enter into that hidden sanctuary of wisdom found only by those who have attained the state of virtue. (pp. 155-6)

St Gregory’s interpretation, on the other hand, is a bit more practically oriented. He writes:

Grace begins to operate in people during prayer in different ways, for, as the apostle says, the Spirit distributes Himself as He wills in a variety of modes, and is perceived and known correspondingly (cf. Heb. 2:4). Elijah the Tishbite serves here as an example for us (cf. I Kgs. 19:11-12). In some the Spirit appears as a whirlwind of awe, dissolving the mountains of the passions and shattering the rocks of our hardened hearts, so that our worldly self is transpierced and mortified. In others the Spirit appears as an earthquake, that is to say as a sense of inward jubilation or what the fathers more clearly define as a sense of exultation. In others He is manifested inwardly as a fire that is non-material yet real; for what is unreal and imaginary is also non-existent. Finally, in others—particularly in those well advanced in prayer—God produces a gentle and serene flow of light. This is when Christ comes to dwell in the heart, as St Paul says (cf. Eph. 3:17), mystically disclosing Himself through the Holy Spirit. That is why God said to Elijah on Mount Horeb that the Lord was not in this or that—not in the particular actions He manifests Himself in to beginners—but in the gentle flow of light; for it is in this that He attests the perfection of our prayer. (pp. 285-6)

Of course, the story of the Prophet’s ascent to the heavens in 4 Kings 2:11 (LXX) is also applied by the Fathers to the spiritual life. Thus, St Theognostus writes that if we are—

purified by self-restraint and tears, we will be lifted up from the earth like Elijah or Habakkuk (cf. 2 Kgs. 2:11; Bel and Dr., verses 36-39), anticipating the moment when we will be caught up into the clouds (cf. I Thess. 4:17); and transported beyond the world of the senses by undistracted prayer, pure and contemplative, we may then in our search for God touch the fringe of theology. (Philokalia 2, p. 360)

These references to the Prophet Elijah in the context of patristic teaching on contemplation (theoria) serve as a reminder that he is commonly seen as a prototype of the monastic life, especially in its eremitic form. Thus, in Conferences XVIII.vi.2, St John Cassian writes concerning anchorites (The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey [Mahwah, NJ: Newman, 1997], p. 639):

They desire to engage the demons in an open struggle and in out-and-out combat, and they are not afraid to penetrate the vast recesses of the desert in imitation of John the Baptist, who spent his whole life in the desert, and of Elijah and Elisha and the others whom the Apostle recalls thus: ‘They went about in sheepskin and in goatskin, in distress, afflicted, needy, the world unworthy of them, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and caverns of the earth’ (Heb 11:37-38).

In one of St Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns preserved in Armenian, he refers to St Elijah (though not by name) as an illustration of the power of prayer (Sebastian Brock, trans., The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1987], p, 37):

6. Prayer gave manna to the people, and by the same prayer the just are nourished. The prayer that bound the heavens* released them too, just as it had first bound them.* Prayer brought down from heaven the fire* that devoured the sacrifice and licked up the water; prayer seized and finished off the four hundred and fifty priests of Baal.*

7. For forty days prayer accompanied the prophet in the recesses of his cave on Horeb;* he openly conversed with the Deity.* Fiery chariots were harnessed and descended,* they took him up, ascending with him to the God whom he loved. The Watchers on high rejoiced at the ascent of the prophet to heaven in his body.

As I have already posted the full account of the Prophet’s life from the Prologue, I may as well go ahead and post the rest of the Prologue material on St Elijah! (I’m sick, stuck at home, and have nothing better to do right now! Sorry if this is tedious for some of you . . . ) First of all, to the account above, the Lazarica edition has appended the following:

Author’s note: In the Greek Lives of the Saints, the following miracle of the holy prophet Elias is recorded: a certain Paisius, abbot of the monastery of St Elias in Jerusalem, went to Constantinople and from Constantinople to Belgrade at the time that Patriarch Paisius was staying there. At that time, there was an Orthodox Christian living in Belgrade, married to a Latin wife. On St Elias’s day, the wife planned to make bread, but her husband said to her: ‘You must not work.’ His wife replied that the feast had been two days earlier (according to the Roman Calendar). And so a dispute arose between them. The stubborn woman kneaded the dough, but then a marvel! The dough became stone in her hands! At that, the neighbours gathered round, and each of them took a piece of the stone. Paisius took a piece of it, as a witness to God’s miracle, and took it with him to Jerusalem. He laid this piece of stone in front of the icon of the holy prophet Elias in his monastery. (This is recorded in Dositheus Book XII, Ch. 11, Para. 2, p. 1192.) (Prologue, p. 20)

Second, the Sebastian edition (here) includes the following ‘Hymn of Praise’ for ‘Saint Elijah the Prophet’ by St Nicholas:

Fiery man, the Prophet Elijah,
With heavenly radiance, glowed on earth
Pleased the Lord with your prayers
You closed the heavens and from heaven brought down fire,
All with the help of God's All-powerful right hand;
Because of their lukewarm faith, you rebuke men;
For the Living God, you diligently labored
And, as its prophet, the Church celebrates you.
The king did not frighten you and the queen even less,
Your king and your possession, the Lord God is.
Neither about food nor about drink did he worry.
To God's Providence, you were completely devoted
Without fear of anyone, you were a fear to everyone.
As a powerful lion who is a fear to small mice.
For the Living God you diligently labored
And as its prophet, the Church celebrates you.
As so few, the Lord glorified you
For the Living God you glorified:
To ignite sacrifices, God sent you a fire;
To resurrect the dead, power He gave you.
The entire world, your powerful work amazed,
All your prophecies were fulfilled,
With soul and body, you were alive and whole,
That is why death did not have any part in you.
Both in soul and body, fiery prophet
Glory to you! We exclaim with a joyful soul.

Finally, as if to form a bridge between my post on St Macrina yesterday, today’s on St Elijah, and the Feast of the Transfiguration coming up in a couple of weeks (6 August on the Church’s calendar), we find this ‘For Consideration’:

Writing about the life of his sister Macrina, St Gregory of Nyssa refrained from enumerating her miracles, saying: ‘. . . that I may not bring weak men to the sin of unbelief’. He calls those weak who do not believe. And, indeed, there is none weaker than the man without faith. A man without faith believes in the power of dead things, but does not believe in the power of God or of the men of God. That is spiritual obtuseness, and that obtuseness is equivalent to spiritual death. Thus souls that believe are alive and those that do not are dead. Living souls believe in the mighty miracles of the Prophet Elias; these miracles delight and encourage them, for they know that they are revelations of the power of God. If God can reveal His power through dead things and elements, can He not reveal it through living and holy men? That which gives the greatest joy to the believer is that the Prophet Elias appeared alive on Mount Tabor at the time of the Lord’s Transfiguration. During his earthly life, this great prophet gave proofs of the existence of the one, living God, and, after his death—several hundred years after it—his appearing on Tabor gave to men a living proof of life after death. (Prologue, pp. 87-8)

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