This week, in addition to the Feast of our Lord’s Circumcision, the Holy Church commemorated the miraculous ascension of the Holy Prophet Elias the Thesbite to the heavens on a chariot of fire. He is one of two men who departed from this world without first tasting death, the other being the Righteous Enoch (Gen 5:21-24).
Elias lived during the reign of the wicked monarchs of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel (874-853 B.C.), who encouraged the active worship of the false idols of Baal rather than the One True God. As a righteous man, Elias was understandably distraught and cut to the heart by what he saw around him. The Jewish people whom the Lord chose, brought out of bondage in Egypt, and delivered repeatedly from the hands of their enemies had abandoned Him and left His altars in disuse.
To help bring Ahab, Jezebel, and the people of Israel to repentance, the Lord granted Elias’ prayer that there would be a severe drought in the land to the extent that rain and dew were no longer seen in Israel. This is one of many mighty works that the Lord granted to Elias, which included even raising the dead, as he did with the widow’s son in 3 Kingdoms 17:17-23. 1
In 3 Kingdoms 18:25–40, we read about how Elias famously challenged and overcame the wicked priests of Baal in a great contest. When the wicked queen, Jezebel, learned what happened, her heart was set on murdering him, so Elias fled to the wilderness for 40 days just as the Holy Archprophet Moses dwelt in the wilderness 40 days before He met the Lord. Similarly, in Matthew 4, we read about how our Lord Jesus Christ dwelt in the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil.
In the same way, Elias struggled in the wilderness. On the one hand, it seemed he had won a great victory for the Lord by overcoming the false priests of the false idol, Baal, but on the other hand, the people were sadly unresponsive and slow to change. Elias, the holy prophet who could even shut the heavens and raise the dead, nonetheless endured severe tribulations and afflictions. He was exhausted and utterly spent over all of the wickedness and idolatry that was around him in Israel. He then climbed up Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai), entered the same cave in which the Lord sheltered Moses in Exodus 33:22, and opened his heart to God in prayer, saying,
I have been very jealous for the Lord Almighty, because the children of Israel have forsaken 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 (3 Kgdms 19:10).
Elias wrestled with the Lord in this prayer. “I have served You well,” he said, “but nothing has changed and now I am left alone while my enemies plot to kill me.” These words, of course, prophetically describe our Lord’s ministry to the very same Jewish people, but they also describe the cry of a servant who sees little or no fruit in his service or the cry of every Christian living in an increasingly sinful world.
Our Lord responded to Elias in a beautiful way that is worth reading from the original text:
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 Elias 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, Elias? (3 Kgdms 19:11–13).
Thus, as Elias was spiritually and physically exhausted from contending with the wickedness around him, the Lord granted him a theophany, a chance to experience a manifestation of God. First, there was a great and strong wind that was powerful enough even to break the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. Second, there was an earthquake that shook the rocks, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Third, the rocks spontaneously combusted into a blazing fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Fourth and finally, there was the voice of a gentle breeze… and the Lord was there, for Elias stood up, wrapped his face in his mantle, and heard the voice of the Lord.
There is a wonderful lesson for us in this beautiful story that, even when we see the entire world going mad all around us and wickedness growing at an exponential pace, the Lord is with us, manifesting Himself to us not as a mighty wind, earthquake, or fire, but rather, as a gentle voice of the breeze. When we who serve in the Church feel as though there is little or no fruit in the service, because no one is listening or taking it seriously, the Lord is with us, speaking in the gentle voice of the breeze.
This is the same Lord of Whom the Holy Prophet Esaias spoke, “He shall not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor shall his voice be heard without. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench; but he shall bring forth judgment to truth” (Is 42:2–3; cf. Mt 12:19, 20). Yes, our Lord will judge the world of all its wickedness; He will recompense everyone according to his deeds as the Just Judge. But the time of judgment has yet to come. This is the time of sowing seeds just as Christ in the Parable of the Sower continually sows seeds on land that is 75% bad soil (Mt 13:1-23). This is the time of reflecting Christ’s light in the world by imitating Him. While He was on earth ministering to us, He was gentle and kind, always speaking the truth in love. We must be as merciful and humble as He is, especially with those who are sick with evil in their hearts.
The characteristics of Christians living in the world are love, forbearance, meekness, humility, and affection, because these are the characteristics of God. He is the loving Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15) who loved two sons who rejected him in different ways. He is the patient Owner in the Parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard (Mt 21:33-46; Mk 12:1-12; Lk 20:9-19) who sent not only His servants, but also His beloved Son to the workers without rage, anger, or force.
The Holy Prophet Elias struggled in his sinful world, but ultimately was made worthy to ascend to the heavens on a chariot of fire led by fiery horses. We celebrate his miraculous ascent to heaven and remember that, before he could ascend to heaven, he first had to descend into tribulations and afflictions before experiencing a theophany and hearing the voice of the Lord in the gentle breeze.