Condensed from Saints of Carmel(1)
I. LIFE OF ELIJAH
The prophet Elijah rose as a champion of the monotheism of Jahweh, his very name, "Jahweh is God" or "Jahweh is my God," expresses his character and his function in the history of God's people. He strenuously defended the rights of God and preserved faith in Him among the people. His struggle to the bitter end against any syncretism makes of this Prophet, "whose words were as a flaming furnace,"(2) a figure of prime importance in the succession of the two Alliances. While his praise is celebrated in Sirach 48:1-12, his life is largely described in the Books of Kings, in which it is customary to distinguish a "cycle of Elijah"(3) and a "cycle of Elisha."(4) While the account of the activity belongs to first cycle, the description of his assumption into heaven is found in the cycle of Elisha, who succeeded Elijah at that precise moment. Elijah and Elisha by an unknown artist
Originally of Tisbe (el-Istib), Elijah exercised his ministry in the northern kingdom, during the 9th century before Christ and in the times of Ahab and Ahaziah. Ahab, first descendant of the Omrite family, ascended to the throne in the year 874 B.C. He had married Jezebel, a daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre and high priest of Astarte.(5) The political advantages of such a union were paid for by submission on the part of Ahab to the will of Jezebel, who showed her dominion over her husband by the violent imposition of the cult of Baal and the execution of Naboth and his sons, who hindered her from prevailing in the region of Israel.(6)
In this circumstance Elijah is invited by the Lord to announce to Ahab the law of retaliation,(7) which was afterwards limited to his wife and sons because of the public penance of the king.(8) The anger of Jezebel against Elijah was vented in the massacre of the prophets of Jahweh;(9) and Elijah answered with the announcement of a drought of three years, during which he took refuge first, in the "torrent of Cherith" (Wadi Jabis), in Transjordan, where he was fed by ravens. Then he went to Zarephath (Sarafand), about nine miles south of Sidon, where he was maintained by a widow, for whom he miraculously multiplied her oil and meal and raised her son to life.(10)
The inconvertible proof that "the Lord is God" was had in the confrontation with the Baal of Jezebel, in a place that an ancient tradition locates at El-Muhraqah, to the southeast of Carmel. While, at the prayer of Elijah, a stroke of lightning consumed his holocaust to Jahweh by fire, the shouts, the dances, and the mutilations of the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal did not bring any result; and thus they were killed by the torrent of Kishon.(11) In order to avoid the revenge of Jezebel, Elijah had to flee to the south, where he was miraculously reinvigorated and so came to Mount Horeb. On the summit of Gebel Musa, in a theophany, he received a triple mission aimed at the investiture of Hazael as king of Damascus, of Jehu as king of Israel, and of Elisha as prophet.(12)
After Ahab's death (852 B.C.) in battle at Ramoth-Gilead,(13) Ahab's son Ahaziah succeeded him. When Ahaziah found himself seriously ill, he sent to consult Beelzebub, god of Ekron;(14) Elijah again intervened, and announced the king's death. As the end of his life approached, Elijah left Gilgal and followed by Elisha and a group of prophets, made his way to the Jordan with stops at Bethel and Jericho. At the Jordan, he made a way for himself through the waters with his mantle; and only Elisha, destined to be his successor, followed him. The mysterious end of Elijah is described as a taking up by means of a fiery chariot,(15) from this description derived the ancient Jewish belief that the prophet would return before the "great day of Jahweh," that is, before the parousla or appearance of the Messiah. This belief was echoed by the Fathers of the Church and ecclesiastical writers.
Together with Moses, Elijah was on Tabor, at the transfiguration of Jesus.(16) Like Moses, Elijah had been favored with a vision of God on Sinai and was considered as working hand in hand with Moses in regard to the Old Alliance; Moses was the legislator, who concluded the Alliance; Elijah was the prophet, who preserved it pure and intact. The presence of both on Tabor was meant to attest, in anticipation of the exaltation of Jesus, that the New Alliance is the crowning of the Old.
Finally, Elijah is also presented in the New Testament as a model of efficacious prayer.(17)
II. ELIJAH IN JEWISH TRADITION
The important place that prophet "taken" into heaven holds in the Jewish Haggada (pious traditions) is well known. The Haggada illustrates and amplifies, with sometimes simplistic legendary elements and with theological considerations, the biblical texts concerning the earthly life of Elijah. But it particularly dwells on his being taken up and his heavenly activity, on his apparitions on the earth, as a benefactor of the poor and a friend of the humble, as a helper and liberator of the faithful from every inextricable situation, as a friend of the wise and of experts on the Torah, for which he was so zealous, and finally, as a precursor of the Messiah.
When the angel of death appeared to take him away, Elijah was speaking with Elisha about the Torah. And since it was not granted to the devil to interrupt this dialogue, Satan lay in wait; but then the chariot of fire with horses of fire came between Elijah and his disciple. Elijah mounted the chariot and was transferred into heaven in a whirlwind. Satan then went before God to protest that Elijah had not died; but before he could begin to speak God said, "I have created the heavens precisely so that Elijah could come up to them." The fallen angel insisted and so the Eternal God permitted a struggle between Satan and Elijah. But the prophet came out the victor and asked permission to destroy his adversary. But permission was not granted him, in as much as the final victory over Satan was to come at the end of time.
The idea of the bodily transference of Elijah remained the more common one. Rabbi Jehuda b. Hai asks himself "If Adam had not sinned, would we have always remained alive?" He answers "That is exactly what happened to Elijah because he did not sin.
Yet in other texts it is affirmed that Elijah left his corporal body in order to assume a luminous one: "How was Elijah able to ascend and dwell in the heavens which cannot support even a grain of wheat?" Rabbi Simeon k. Jochai replies: "I have found it written: "Among those who will be born in this world there will be one spirit who will descend to the earth and be clothed in a body. His name is Elijah. He will return to heaven, and his body will remain in the whirlwind while his spirit will be clothed with a luminous body, so that he can dwell among the angels."
Moreover, Elijah frequently descends to earth: "The dogs bark joyfully, Elijah is not far away; the dogs lament, the angel of death is approaching."(18) Accounts of his apparitions among men provide instructive, sometimes light-hearted legends, which inculcate a love of justice and faith in providence.
However, the essential function of Elijah is that of precursor of the Messiah. This belief is based on the prophecy of Malachi,(19) which has long been understood in this sense. This belief, in fact, was common among the people at the time of Jesus, as the numerous questions on the return of Elijah show.(20)
For the Jews, Elijah is not a personage of the past. He is present and accompanies Israel on its long pilgrimage; he is alive in the piety of the individual Jew, as the closest and most familiar of heavenly protectors. At the rite of circumcision a place is still always left vacant; it is the place of Elijah.
III. ELIJAH AND THE MONASTIC IDEAL
For the monks, the theme of the prophetic aspect of their life has always inspired the liveliest interest. Actually, the spirituality of a life of perfection was already prepared in the Old Testament. The great prophets Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist and others were considered types of the religious life.
The fathers of the desert willingly harked back to the examples of our forefathers in the faith, especially of Elijah as the epistle to the Hebrews(21) presents him; he is an exemplar who inspires their spiritual life. A first and quite explicit testimony of the initiation of the prophetic ideal is found in the life of St. Anthony, patriarch of the anchorites.(22) Anthony resolved on constant progress in the way of perfection: He frequently repeated to himself the saying of the apostle: "Forgetting the things that are behind and stretching forth myself to those that are before."(23) He also used to recall the motto of the prophet Elijah: "The Lord lives, and today I must appear before His face"(24) Furthermore, he told himself that an ascetic must daily (i.e., always) relate his own life, as if in a mirror, to the manner of the life of the great Elijah.
The continual presence of God is precisely that which Anthony proposed to himself as the ideal. The young Onufrius, who lived in a cenobitic community of the Thebaid, heard the older members praise the hermitical life of Elijah. "I often heard my venerable Brothers praise the life of our blessed Father Elijah, who endeavored to mortify himself in the desert with so much abstinence and prayer that he merited to receive the height of virtue from the Lord." Hermits fled from the easy life of the world, in order to become citizens of heaven and to form, "as it were, a sort of segregated region of piety and justice."
If Elijah is not the founder of a monastic life in a strict sense, he may be considered an authentic precursor. He is a master, says St. Ambrose; the monks are his disciples. St. Jerome(25) writes of this primacy: "Our leader is Elijah, ours is Elisha; our guides are the sons of the prophets, who dwelt in the fields and in solitary places and made abodes for themselves near the river Jordan."
The monks were inspired, above all, by Elijah's life of prayer. Elijah exhorts to the totality of divine love: "How long will you straddle the issue: If the Lord is God, follow him?"(26) The prayer of Elijah, a man like us, was most powerful. Thus, on this point he is a complete exemplar. The seer of Horeb and Tabor is also the exemplar with a great intimacy with the Lord. For Maximus, the Confessor,(27) the vision of the glorious Elijah in his cave is a symbol of mystical experience: "Horeb represents ... an habitual exercise of the virtues in a spirit of grace. The cave is the mystery of wisdom hidden in the soul, and its sanctuary. The man who will have entered there will have the profound and mystical intuition of the knowledge 'which is above all knowledge' and in which the presence of God is revealed."
IV. ELIJAH AND THE CARMELITES
At the time of the Crusades, some warriors, attracted by the beauty of Mount Carmel, by its geographical position, and also by the memory of the prophet, retired to the mount. Between 1206-14 a group of Latin hermits who lived "near the fountain on Mount Carmel" received from the hands of Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, a "formula of life," confirmed in 1226 by Pope Honorius III. They are the Carmelites, the Friars of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the sons of Elijah.
The Carmelite, John Baconthorpe, who died in 1346, united the Marian devotion of the Order of Carmel with the memory of the prophet Elijah: "According to the prophets (prophecies?), the friars of Carmel originated especially for the veneration of the blessed Mary ... And since the blessed Mary is honored and preached through Carmel, it is fitting that on Carmel, which is dedicated to her, she should have the Carmelites, who venerate her in a special way. This is how it was in ancient times; in reality prophecies are understood in the light of subsequent facts ... How many prophets and kings has Carmel had who through their deeds rendered honor to the Lady of the place, the blessed Mary! It was in order to continue the cult of the blessed Mary on Carmel that the Order of the Friars of Carmel had its origin. For veneration given in places sacred to the saints is attributed, after God, to the saints themselves ... But even if all those who were to be saved at the time of the prophets rendered honor to the Son Who was to come through the blessed Mary ... nevertheless it was the friars of Carmel, venerating Him who was to come at the time of Elijah and Elisha, who began their Order of the blessed Mary on Carmel ... Therefore, it is by reason of this veneration that they took root."
V. ELIJAH IN LITURGY
There is no doubt about the great antiquity of the cult attributed to Elijah in the churches of the East. The Byzantine East has remained faithful to this tradition. In 1918, of 4,637 churches in Greece, a kind of statistical report indicates that 752 were dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin, 196 to St. Athanasius, 189 to St. John the Baptist, 75 to Elijah and 69 to St. George.
We know that in the Latin church the saints of the Old Testament had a restricted cult. The liturgy of Rome, which imposed itself very quickly on the whole West, celebrated the feast of martyrs almost exclusively; afterwards bishops who had fought for the orthodox faith were added to the martyrs, under the title of confessors. Only one feast of saints of the Old Testament penetrated the Roman liturgy, that of the Maccabees, on August 1, in as much as these brothers were martyrs.
The cult of Elijah seems to have made its entry into the West at Auxerre, probably on the same date as in the East, July 20. But this is the only witness for such a cult before the XV century.
The liturgy for the feast of St. Elijah does not belong to the Roman liturgy, but is proper to the Carmelites. In the approval of the new Carmelite proper, granted April 17, l972, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship "willingly concedes that Elijah be honored with the rank of solemnity, in order to give preeminence to the ideal founder of the Carmelite Order." On October 20, 1971, the rank of feast had been granted to the Discalced Carmelites. The feast is observed July 20.
VI. ELIJAH IN THE SEAL OF CARMEL
Nations, organizations, and individuals have their coat of arms which is expressive of some facts in their history, or some typical characteristics. So the Order of Carmel has its seal, significant of its spirit and its antiquity. In the center of the shield is Mount Carmel, the cradle of the Order, and in this shield are also three six-pointed stars which represent the three epochs in the history of Carmel; the first, or Prophetic era, from the time of the Prophet Elijah to the time of St. John the Baptist; the second, or Greek epoch, when the Order spread throughout the East and West, from the time of St. John to the time of Berthold, the first Latin General; and the third, from Berthold to the end of time. The cross on the summit of the mountain was added in the sixteenth century as the distinctive mark of the Discalced Carmelites. The twelve stars of the crown represent the prerogatives of our Lady, the Virgin Mary whom St. John saw in the apocalyptic vision: "A woman clothed with the sun ...and on her head a crown of twelve stars." The stars also signify the twelve points of the Rule, which are: Obedience, Chastity, Poverty, Recollection, Mental Prayer, Divine Office, Chapter, Abstinence from Meat, Manual Labor, Silence, Humility, and Super-erogation.
Above the shield is an arm with a flaming sword, symbolic of the fiery spirit of Elijah. Over it is a scroll bearing the words of the prophet: Zelo Zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum, "With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts."(28)
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Decree, Foreword, and Articles 2, 4, 5 and
2. Elijah, by Adrienne Von Speyr. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, ©1990.
1. A compilation by Rev. Louis Saggi, O. Carm. and Rev. Valentine Macca,
OCD. Translated by Vy. Rev. Gabriel Pausback, O. Carm; Carmelite Institute,
Rome: 1975, with permission.
2. see Sirach 48:1
3. 1 Kgs 17-21; 2 Kgs I
4. 2 Kgs 2-13
5. 1 Kgs 16:31
6. 1 Kgs 21: 1-16
7. l Kgs 21:21-24
8. 1Kgs 21 29; 2 Kgs 9:7-10; 26;36 ff
9. 1 Kgs 18:4, 13; 19:10
10. 1 Kgs 17
11. 1 Kgs 18
12. 1 Kgs 19
13. 1 Kgs 22:1-40
14. 2 Kgs 1:2
15. 2 Kgs 2:2-13
16. Mk 9:2-8; Mt 17:1-8; Lk 9:28-36
17. James, 5:16-18
18. Bab. Kam. 60b
20. Mt 7:10ff., and parallel passages; Lk 1:17; Jn 1:21,25
21. 11 37-38
22. 251-356 A.D
23. Phil. 3:13
24. (before Whose face I stand this day) see I Kgs. 18:15 and passim
25. 345-420, A.D.
26. 1 Kgs. 18:21
27. 580-662, A.D.
28. NAB, 1 Kgs 19:14 6
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