Have you ever been the excited recipient of an inheritance? If so, you may have received money, property or a treasured family heirloom. As a high school student I became one of the beneficiaries of my paternal grandfather’s inheritance. Knowing that I had intended to go on to a Teacher’s College, he had investigated the tuition for the four years, which came to a grand total of $600.00. Obviously that dates me! Gone are those days however! But I was able to enter and complete college without any financial concerns, thanks to his departing gift to me. As welcome as these legacies are, more important, however, would be the inherited treasures left by St. Elijah, prophet of the Old Testament and inspiration for the Order of Carmel.
In ancient times, as we can see from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it was the elder son who came into the greater part of an inheritance. So too with Elisha, the successor and spiritual son of Elijah. As Elijah was ending his earthly sojourn he rose in a fiery chariot and cast his mantle to the ground which was caught by Elisha. The mantle symbolized the two-fold spirit of Elijah whose ministry would now be carried on by his successor. Thus this particular prophetic legacy was handed on (2Kings 2:9-12).
Did Elijah leave anything else? What is there for us to inherit? Actually, Elijah left quite a voluminous legacy. We will take a look at some of these treasures and then leave you to explore the Book of Kings to find other gems.
First of all, who was this mysterious figure who suddenly seems to come out of nowhere, makes a dramatic appearance, challenges King Ahab, and then disappears in 1Kings 17:1 ? Scripture identifies him as a Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, which was probably “the rocky region” that lay on the east of Jordan. We learn nothing of his parentage or background. We are confronted only with a man of unusual courage who takes to task the king, who has abandoned the one true God of Israel to pay homage to the pagan idols of his Phoenician wife Jezebel.
Elijah identifies himself to King Ahab as God’s servant – sent to do His Will. “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1Kings 17:1). Elijah is a man of prayer, a witness to God’s love. Discerning the signs of the times in which a spiritual drought has fallen upon Israel, he reminds Ahab that as king he should also be a servant of the one God of Israel. Instead he has given in to his pagan wife and has not shepherded his people but rather is leading them astray. As a man of prayer Elijah is likewise a man of action. The word he speaks is effective and he informs the king of the impending drought which will last until, through God’s power, Elijah will withdraw it. From his mouth comes the “fiery” word which will burn the earth and plunge it into a 3 1/2 -year period of no rain. The spiritual drought which has seared the souls of God’s chosen people will now likewise scorch the earth.
As God’s servants we are also sent to do His Will – to discern prayerfully the signs of the times, to become responsible Christians of action – to be courageous in a world that often challenges our moral convictions; to be faithful to our word even when it is unpopular.
Legacy: Prayerful Solitude/Compassion
As suddenly as Elijah appeared God ordered him to hide. “Depart from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there” (1Kings 17:3-4). As a servant Elijah was ready to embrace the next mission entrusted to him. He was also a man of compassion. He knew his gifts and strengths and put them at God’s disposal, but in his humanness he also knew his weaknesses which we will consider later. In the ancient world the most vulnerable and often neglected persons were children and widows. God sends Elijah into a place of remoteness and solitude, a place of prayer and growth in charity, a place of dependence upon the poor provisions of a widow and her son, but also for this man of action a place of opportunity for compassion as protector of the poor and suffering. It is here that the exchange of receiving and giving will open the heart of the widow to faith and the heart of Elijah to his future missions (1Kings 17:8-24).
God sent Elijah into a place of solitude, where removed from the turmoil swirling about him, he would be prepared through prayer for the next intense phase of his mission. God used the circumstances of the unfortunate to teach Elijah not to be so self-reliant. As he would give so must he be willing to receive. Elijah helps us to be conscious of the circumstances of others and to realize that others, even those less fortunate than ourselves, have something to offer us.
In the third year of the drought Elijah received a new command from God: “Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth” (1Kings 18:1). Sound simple enough? Not if you read Chapter 18 of 1Kings! During Elijah’s absence Queen Jezebel had the prophets of the Lord killed; not a pleasant woman to do business with. In trying to set up a meeting with King Ahab, Elijah was putting his life on the line. Time was running out and the king could no longer straddle the fence between the God of Israel and his wife’s idols. Elijah, the fiery prophet, challenged Ahab – he, the Lord’s Prophet against the 450 prophets of Baal. Both sides would offer sacrifice but not set fire to them. Whose prayer would be answered and whose sacrifice would be consumed by fire sent down from heaven (1Kings 18:20-40)? On that day the people of Israel fell on their faces in worship to the God of Israel who had shown through Elijah that the Lord is God. And the prophets of Baal were put to death!
The rains fell and the drought came to an end (1 Kings 18:41-46).
Elijah, faithful preserver of the covenant, is called forth from his time of intimacy with the Lord to stand strong and alone against the prophets of Baal to rekindle the faith of God’s people.
Most of us will not be called to put our life on the line, but we may be called to put our reputation on the line, to experience misunderstanding, hostility or rejection. We are called to enter into the Paschal Mystery as God’s witness and faithful servant.
Legacy: Fullness of Charity
The tension of such a dramatic event and the subsequent threat from Jezebel to take the life of Elijah sent him fleeing into the wilderness. Totally spent and utterly exhausted he lay down under a broom tree asking to die. For him the journey was over; he could not rise. Here was Elijah, the man of strength, now in the doldrums of weakness and despair. He had just experienced rejection, fear, and total discouragement. He had entered into the depths of darkness. How much could one person endure? He had forgotten that he was called to be a witness to the living God, not to be successful in every venture. Even a prophet cannot necessarily see the outcome of his endeavors. God sent an angel to interrupt his darkness and to sustain him with food for the next leg of the journey. Have you ever felt that you could not take even one more step? Unknown to Elijah just yet, he still has a 40-day journey to make to Mount Horeb (1Kings 19:1-8).
Elijah was now experiencing in his human weakness a deep purification, a realization that God’s will was not going to be accomplished by self-reliance. To experience God’s Presence is pure gift; God’s will is the fullness of charity within our heart, given over through sacrifice and total self-surrender. Elijah reminds us that God’s grace works through our human nature.
At the end of his 40-day journey Elijah entered a cave on Mount Horeb. Within the darkness and seclusion of this dwelling the Lord questioned him as to his purpose there. Elijah responded with his timeless answer, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts…” (1Kings 19:10). Thus he summed up, not only his purpose in coming to Mount Horeb, but the purpose of his very life. Painfully he still felt the sting of human defeat and complained to God. Taking him where he was God came to his assistance by sending him to the mouth of the cave. There in God’s majestic creation Elijah listened to the mighty wind, the powerful earthquake and the roaring fire expecting to hear God’s voice. Creation was shouting out but God was silent. God turned Elijah’s expectations around full circle and brought him back to his wilderness experience where he must wait on the Lord. The Lord, rather than shatter the silence, entered into it as a small whispering voice and again questioned Elijah as to his purpose there. He then sent him back into the wilderness with directives, one of which was to anoint Elisha as his successor (1Kings 19:9-16).
Elijah’s zeal was enkindled by his strong awareness of God’s Presence. He teaches us to be still, to listen and to sift out all the many voices calling out to us in order to recognize God’s still small voice among the others. Where in your own circumstance can you find the “dwelling” that will enable you to be still, to hear God’s voice and to be aware of His Presence?
The Will and Testament of Elijah offers numerous other legacies besides the ones mentioned above. See for yourself by reading slowly and prayerfully the Book of Kings.