Elijah, also known as Elias, was a distinctive Hebrew prophet whose exploits are recounted largely in the First and Second Books of Kings. Elijah is familiar to Christian believers through his close association with John the Baptist and through his appearance with Moses at the transfiguration of Christ. Elijah was one of those rare Old Testament figures who, like Enoch, did not die but was taken up into heaven on the fiery chariot noted in the celebrated Negro spiritual. Lack of a recorded death possibly indicates a Jewish belief in Elijah’s continued influence over Jewish history and even his eventual return into history. The Jews of Jesus’ era certainly anticipated Elijah’s return and were only too anxious to see Elijah in the person of St. John the Baptist.
Elijah had the unhappy misfortune of living during the reign of the hapless King Ahab and his fiendish wife Queen Jezebel. The prophet’s life was a solitary struggle to maintain Jewish orthodoxy during an era of widespread pagan influence. Several Biblical vignettes that are read at daily Masses during Lent well illustrate what a thankless task was the life of Elijah. The infidelity of Israel occasioned a vast famine which lasted three years. Even Elijah was near starvation when he encountered a widow near Sidon, just north of Israel. Through Elijah, God provided the woman with food and even raised her son from death. The openness of the widow toward God’s influence was in stark contrast to the apostasy of the Jews under Ahab. Jesus himself cited this widow as a sign of the universality of God’s love. Encouraged, Elijah returned to Israel and attempted to reconvert his nation to God. The noted episode of the drenched woodpile bursting into flame at the prayer of Elijah while the pagan prophets prayed in vain for a similar conflagration was a dramatic display of God’s power. Even more encouraged, Elijah prayed for an end to the famine and his prayer was answered.
Jezebel however was not to be placated. She threatened Elijah with death, forcing him to flee to the wilderness where he rested exhausted waiting for an end to life. Angels ministered to Elijah and restored his vigor. Elijah then, like Moses, journeyed to Mount Horeb (Sinai) where he encountered the presence of God in the “wee, small voice.” God directed him to return to his people and anoint new kings for the Jewish and the Syrian nations and to anoint Eliseus as his own successor. In an incident reminiscent of David’s killing Uriah to procure Bathsheba, Ahab, through Jezebel, has the man Naboth stoned to death in order to secure a small but privileged vineyard. Exposed by Elijah, Ahab repents of this treachery, but the full blunt of God’s wrath comes upon Jezebel who is eaten by dogs. Their son meets a similar fate when, hurt in a fall, he prays for healing to the pagan god instead of the true God. Elijah is last seen at the River Jordan where, again Moses-like, the water parts and he is taken up into heaven, dropping his cloak. His disciple Eliseus then assumes this mantle of prophetic authority.
The First and Second Books of Kings are an Old Testament mixture of history and anecdote. There is much convoluted narrative that intertwines tales of Jewish infidelity and religious reform. Jewish history becomes a cycle of wrongdoing and then repentance, transgressions and then transformation. Accompanying the turbulent reigns and remorseful reforms of Jewish kings can always be seen the continuing and unrelenting grace of God inevitably recalling his people back from their waywardness and offering them true penance, true conversion, true renewal through the prophets.
St. John the Baptist, much as Elijah was in his day, was a symbol of hope and renewal for the Jewish people and for all succeeding generations of Christians. Just as God never abandoned his ancient people in spite of their infidelity, so God’s prophetic voice will never be stilled. The Baptist called the Jews to repentance and renewal at the Jordan. Jesus summoned his contemporaries to repentance and renewal up and down the roads of Palestine. The Church maintains the prophetic ministry of Elijah, John and Jesus through her perennial call to “repent and believe in the Good News!” In this Advent season of expectation and anticipation, God’s Biblical fidelity in the face of man’s persistent infidelity is an annual pledge of hope and encouragement.