On July 20, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Prophet Elias. The account of his life is found in the two books of Kings in the Old Testament; 900 years before the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He was of the Levite Tribe from Tishba of Gilead, beyond the Jordan River.
From his youth, Elias (Elijah) settled in the wilderness, clothed in a mantle of sheepskin and wore a leather belt, characteristic of an ascetic. When John the Baptist began his ministry, many believed Elijah had returned since John was very similar to Elijah.
John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts with wild honey (Mk 1:6). Jesus taught that John fulfilled the prophecy of the return of Elijah. He [John] is Elijah who is to come (Mt 11:14). Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? “But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him (Lk 9:12-13).” Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.
There were times where Jesus referred to Elijah specifically: But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian (Lk 4: 25-27).
During the reign of the Israel King Ahab, the Jews abandoned the true God and instead turned to the worship of pagan idols. Ahab’s wife Jezebel, urged her husband to build a temple dedicated to the pagan god Baal. As punishment, Elijah turned to God in prayer and beseeched Him that no rain would fall.
For three and a half years there was drought and famine throughout the whole land. However, there was a widow and her family who found favor before God. So God sent Elijah to that family to feed them. At Elijah’s request the widow took her last measure of flour and whatever remaining oil she had and baked a bread.
By Elijah’s prayer to God, both the flour and oil multiplied to feed them indefinitely. This miracle is just like the one Jesus did when He fed the four thousand with only seven loaves and few little fish, leaving seven whole baskets of fragments that were left (Mt 15:32-38). In Mark’s Gospel it was feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, leaving twelve baskets full of fragments (Mk 6:30-44). Both Luke and John’s Gospel are the same as Mark in regards to the numbers. We commemorate this miracle at every artoclasia (αρτοκλασία) usually at a vespers service or at the end of a liturgy.
Elijah also raised the son of the widow back to life. Elijah told Ahab to gather all the people to Mount Carmel and also all the priests of Baal. Elijah proposed that two altars be built but remain unlit. Elijah would pray to the true God for it to be lit while the other side can pray to the pagan god Baal. Whichever sacrifice was first to burn, the workings of that god would be acknowledged as the true God. The believers of Baal called upon him all day but nothing happened. Then, Elijah built his altar with twelve stone, signifying the twelve tribes of Israel and ordered that both the wood and the sacrifice be soaked with water.
Elijah called on God to send fire down and so the fire came down from heaven and consumed the wood, sacrifice and the water that was in the ditch. In addition, the fire absorbed the stones and the soil. By Elijah’s prayer, the heavens opened and began to soak the earth after a three and a half year drought. King Ahab realized his error, in believing in a false god and repented for his sin. His wife, however, did not repent and wanted to have Elijah killed. God did not allow this to happen.
Instead, God sent an angel to strengthen him with food and he was commanded to go on a long journey. So after forty days and forty nights he arrived at Mount Horeb and stayed in a cave. The Lord later commanded Elijah to bring his disciple Elisha into prophetic service. Later with Elisha in his company, Elijah by the power of God, divided the Jordan River so that the two would pass. This of course is reminiscent to Moses parting the Red Sea so that the Jews could escape from the Egyptians.
One day, a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire and the fire separated them one from the other; and Elijah was taken up into heaven by a whirlwind. Then Elisha saw it and cried aloud, “Father, o father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” He saw Elijah no more, and he took of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. Then he raised Elijah’s mantle, which fell from Elijah and upon Elisha, and Elisha returned and stood on the bank of the River Jordan. He took Elijah’s mantle which had fallen upon him and struck the water, but it did not divide. Then he said, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah himself?” And he struck the water again, and it divided this way and that. So Elisha crossed over. When the sons of the prophets in Jericho met him and saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him (4 Kingdoms 2: 11-16).
Elijah did not have an actual physical death. The other person who also did not have a physical death was Enoch, son of Jared. Thus Enoch was well-pleasing to God, and was not found for God translated him (Gn 5:24). According to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, both Enoch and Elijah are to be the Second Forerunners of Christ when He returns in all His Glory to judge the living and the dead at the dreadful Day of Judgment. It is believed that they both will preach in the last days and will face their physical death by the Antichrist who will reign on earth before the Second Coming of Christ.
And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophecy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues, as often as they desire. And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified (Revelations 11 3:3, 6 &7).
The common opinion of the Church Fathers is that the two witnesses are Enoch and Elijah. The description in the Book of Revelations mentions the power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls. This sounds very familiar to when Elijah prayed to God to not send down rain for three and a half years.
The angel incarnate and the Prophets’ pedestal, the second forerunner of the coming of Christ, Elias the glorious, sent down to Elisha the divine grace from heaven. He drives away diseases and he cleanses lepers. Therefore he pours out healings to those who honor him (Festal Apolytikion).
A Blessed Feast to all, especially those who bear the name Elias!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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