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Some Biblical Thoughts on the Transfiguration

“Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” A beautiful welcome today from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. A welcome on this feastday of the Transfiguration – a day that reveals the glory of God to us.

transfiguration

 

Jesus said: “The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”

Jesus could have also said – something greater than Moses is here; something greater than Elijah is here. Moses and Elijah were front and center in the people’s consciousness. Remember that they questioned whether John the Baptist or Jesus himself was Elijah come back to earth. And Moses, the giver of the Law, of course was constantly the issue whenever Jesus was confronted with challenges about the Law.

Why did Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? They both represented the ministry of prophets in the Old Testament.

προφήτης = προ-φημί to declare openly, to make known

Moses himself was the prophet par excellence – not in the sense of prophesying the future, but in the far more important sense of proclaiming God’s word to the people. Elijah spoke the word of God in a most difficult time in Israel’s history when the people were in danger of losing all connection with God. Not only that, but they both had profound mountaintop experiences with God. They both passed on from life in unique circumstances – in a sense, they did not die! And both were denied the privilege of openly seeing the glory of God. Now their desire was fulfilled.

But the most important meaning of their appearance, I believe, has to do with their ministry as prophets. There were three primary offices in ancient Israel: the King, the Priest, the Prophet. In appearing with Jesus, it wasn’t only their desire to see God’s glory that was fulfilled, but also their ministry. Someone greater than Moses, someone greater than Elijah, was here. Jesus took upon himself the full ministry of the prophet: “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” And not only to bear witness to the truth, but “I am the way, the truth and the life”! He was the Truth; he was the Word! The ministry of the prophet came to an end with Jesus – regardless of what Moslems believe about Mohammed.

In his mouth, the word of God became the word of man. The word is near us, on our lips, in our hearts, St Paul told us two Sundays ago. We can say that Jesus fulfilled the ministry of prophet, so that the ministry can be shared by all of us, individually and communally. We all share the responsibility of owning the word of God, making it our own.

Jesus brought the ministry of Moses and Elijah to an end so he could be our Great High Priest – to fulfill also the ministry of the priest. In his version of the transfiguration, Luke tells us that he spoke to Moses and Elijah about his exodus that he would accomplish in Jerusalem – namely his death. Moses was not a priest; that office was given to his brother Aaron.

In a sense we can say that the Transfiguration was the anointing of Jesus for his high-priestly ministry. The Holy Spirit anointed him to the prophetic ministry at his baptism. Now the Holy Spirit overshadows Jesus as the cloud and the voice of God again proclaims he is the beloved Son. The priest in Israel offered sacrifices for the people’s sins. Jesus offered himself. The priest was the means through whom God sanctified his people. Jesus now is our sanctification. Hebrews unites us so completely with Christ, that we read: For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one [source, Father]. (Hebrews 2:11)

Psalm 24 asks:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,

who do not lift up their souls to what is false,

and do not swear deceitfully.

This was a psalm of ascent, chanted or sung by the people as they went up to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a psalm of entry. We also today are invited to ascend with Christ to the heights, where we are transfigured, filled with God’s presence, and brought to ministry in Jesus’ name. We are sanctified (made holy) together with him. We are of one source; we have the same Father.


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It’s always a birth

On August 15th the Orthodox Church observes the feast of the Dormition of Mary (Assumption in the Roman Catholic Church). The simple event of our Lady’s earthly death became adorned with all sorts of legendary additions which have never interested me. It’s the theological and mystical dimensions of this wonderful feast that interest me.

Dormition comes after Transfiguration in the month of August. They go together in celebrating our entry into the divine glory – what is often called ‘deification’, though that term is open to much controversy and misunderstanding, hence my preference for ‘entry into divine glory.’ In the Transfiguration the divine glory radiates outward from the transfigured form of the Lord, sanctifying creation and humanity. In the Dormition, Mary enters into the divine glory, she is no longer external to it.

 

Rays of divine glory emanate from the transfigured Christ

Rays of divine glory emanate from the transfigured Christ (click to enlarge)

Mary is taken into the divine glory as a newborn babe.

Mary is taken into the divine glory as a newborn babe (click to enlarge)

Mary enters into the divine glory as a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths. In the icon of the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), the infant Jesus is wrapped in swaddling cloths.

The Christmas icon (click to enlarge)

The Christmas icon (click to enlarge)

In the Nativity, Mary wrapped her infant Jesus in swaddling cloths.

Nativity_Christ

(click to enlarge)

In the Dormition, Jesus holds the spirit of Mary in swaddling cloths. In iconic form, the son becomes the mother!

dormition_detail

(click to enlarge)

The Dormition is not so much about the death of Mary but about her birth into eternal life and her entry into the divine glory. Salvation history can be seen as a series of entrances. Iconography is the best way to express this particular way of looking at salvation. And, indeed, we ‘look’. The north wall of our church contains four large wall icons, all of them expressing the theme of entrance:

The North Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge)

The North Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge) From left to right: Entrance into Jerusalem, Resurrection, Baptism

We have the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Jerusalem as a young child (not shown in the photo above), then the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, The Resurrection and the Baptism. At the Baptism, Jesus entered into the created order and the human experience. At the Entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus entered into the city where he would die on the Cross. In the Resurrection icon, we see Jesus entering the realm of death to destroy the power of death. These are all key events in the process of Jesus entering into our world and existence. They are events that make up salvation history in the Christian understanding.

The south wall of our church contains just two large wall icons, and these complete the main iconographic scheme in our church.

The South Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge). Transfiguration and Dormition icons.

The South Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge). Transfiguration and Dormition icons.

Here we have the Transfiguration of Christ and the Dormition of Mary side by side. Not only do they fall on the same month, August, within a week of each other, but they also complete the theme of entrance. The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to enter into the divine glory – not to become God, but to be brought into the divine life. Jesus entered our existence so we could enter the divine existence.

Our iconography is uniquely gifted to represent these mirror aspects of salvation: Mary held Jesus in swaddling cloths; Jesus holds Mary in swaddling cloths. Jesus entered human existence; we enter divine existence. Many of the so-called Fathers of the Church spoke of Christ being born in us. Jesus was born of Mary physically. He is to be born in each of us spiritually. And he will receive each of us into divine glory, just as he received his mother: as a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” said Job in the midst of his trials (Job 1:21). Except we don’t quite return naked to the Lord; we return in swaddling cloths, like infants. As infants we enter the divine glory. Jesus himself said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4) It seems the good news of Jesus Christ always involves a birth!

 


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It is good to be here!

The Christian churches have always looked for dogmas when reading the Bible, especially the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul. This is an essential task, but sometimes in our eagerness to turn everything into dogma we miss some more immediate meanings and messages. The transfiguration of Christ is an excellent example.

Transfiguration of Christ: Messenger of Life and Glory

Russian icon of the Transfiguration (click to enlarge)

The Orthodox Church celebrates the “Transfiguration of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ” as one of the great feasts of the church year. And it is indeed one of my own favorite days of the year, so rich with meaning and spiritual blessings. One of my greatest regrets is that in our local church on only a few years have we been able to observe this feast day with anything like the fullness of the liturgical wealth that is proper to it. On most years – including this year – we manage only with Liturgy; we’re not usually equipped to include a full Vespers and Matins. But that will change: there is a significant segment of our parish who desire a fuller experience of our Orthodox liturgical richness.

Not only is Transfiguration one of the great feasts of the church, it is also the inspiration for an important doctrine in the patristic tradition that the Orthodox Church has inherited and safeguards: the doctrine of deification (theosis). It is a beautiful part of our theology. It gives hope to the struggling Christian – hope of personal transformation and hope of universal blessedness. It is also the inspiration for much of our ecological consciousness. It is not by accident that our spiritual leader Bartholomew has been called the “green Patriarch.” Long before any Catholic Pope addressed humanity’s destruction of the environment, Patriarch Bartholomew called it “sin“! He has worked tirelessly to raise the consciousness of anyone who will listen to the dangers of global warming. In Pope Francis he has found a strong ally in this struggle, and the Pope often refers to Patriarch Bartholomew’s work in his recent ground-breaking encyclical, Laudato si’.

My article on this date last year, Life and Death on August 6th, touched a little on the theme of deification – in addition to the Hiroshima bombing (70 years ago today), which has become tragically and forever linked to this day. But are we missing an important part of the message of this event in the life of Jesus? It is wonderfully described in three of the four Gospels (the three that we call the Synoptic Gospels): Mark 9:2-10; Matthew 17:1-9; and Luke 9:28-36. All three Gospels quote Peter as saying to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here.” Peter offered to make three tents – τρεῖς σκηνάς – for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, so they could linger on the mountain. Mark and Luke comment that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. In other words, he was out of his mind to make such a suggestion! And Jesus indeed wanted nothing of Peter’s offer. As soon as Peter spoke, a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my beloved son, listen to him!” And the vision came quickly to an end, and Jesus was alone again.

It was a moment in time – a moment when the divine glory visibly and tangibly revealed itself to a few chosen humans. It wasn’t a matter of a few elite men being treated to something they could brag about. Quite the contrary, they were instructed to say nothing about this experience until after Jesus had risen from the dead. Real transfiguration does not take place on a mountain; no, not even on Mount Athos! Real transfiguration happens in the maelstrom of human life, in the chaos that often accompanies our actions. It was chaos that waited for Jesus and the three disciples who were with him when they came down from the mountain of transfiguration (most fully described in Mark 9:14-27). The nine disciples who had not gone up the mountain with Jesus had tried to heal an epileptic boy and were unable. Jesus enters the scene of confusion and hurt egos and does what human ego could not do.

“Listen to him,” the voice from heaven told Peter, James and John on the mountain. He doesn’t need a tent, Peter! His body – his life among us – is a tent. John’s Gospel tells us that he ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν – literally, “he pitched his tent among us.” Jesus is a nomad in the desert of our lives. He pitches his tent with us and sits with us under the starry skies to teach us calm and trust in the chaos of our lives. We don’t build him anything – no tent, no house, no temple – he is the tent, the temple, our home. He is our transfiguration! “Listen to him,” the voice says to us also. It is good for us to be here – here, in this world, in this life, in our daily existence. We don’t need to go on a mountain high to experience the glory of God.

Stavronikita_Aug2006

Stavronikita Monastery (click to enlarge)

I’ve been on Mount Athos (so-called, “the Holy Mountain”) in northern Greece; twice. I met many holy men there (and many who were full of themselves). The one encounter that still lingers in my mind after 33 years is the conversation I had with the gate-keeper at Stavronikita Monastery in the summer of 1982: a tall, slender man of the most serene demeanor I have ever known, whose name I unfortunately now forget. We talked in the little room at the entrance of the monastery. We wondered at the beauty of the place and all the gifts of nature and spirit that God had provided for the monks’ existence.

The monk and I could repeat the words of Peter, “it is good to be here.” And it was good, an extraordinary feeling of being at peace with oneself, with nature, and with God. But the holy monk ended our conversation with the calm assertion that all this can be taken away by the Panagia, at any moment. The monks believe that Panagia (the popular name for the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos) is the protectress of the Holy Mountain, so it is naturally her prerogative to remove her protection and allow it to be destroyed. All this physical and historical treasure, all the spiritual wealth of Athos – it can all be taken away. And this venerable monk was totally at peace with that thought. It was the one moment in my life when I came closest to experiencing what Buddhists call ‘impermanence’. Nothing is permanent and we suffer the most when we try to cling on to something that is not meant to last or has come to its end.

Stavronikita Monastery in its magnificent setting (click to enlarge)

Stavronikita Monastery in its magnificent setting (click to enlarge)

It’s good to talk of transfiguration, and we Orthodox have beautiful beliefs about theosis/deification. It informs our understanding of salvation and our commitment to care for our planet and all life on it. But talk must lead to action. That’s why Jesus rejected Peter’s offer. Yes, it was good to be there, on the mountain of transfiguration, but the real challenge and blessing is to carry that goodness into our daily lives. Why were the disciples unable to heal the epileptic boy? Because it takes “prayer and fasting” Jesus told them [Mark 9:29; but some ancient manuscripts do not include “fasting”). Prayer and fasting remind us that transfiguration is most easily seen in the small things, the small victories we win by praying for God’s assistance and wisdom while fasting from our own pride and ambition. It is indeed good to be here. Right here, where I am, where you are! I see the light shining through you. Do you see mine? We are in the presence of Christ, and we “listen to him.”

 


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Life and Death on August 6th

On this day, 69 years ago, the B-52 bomber Enola Gay, dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on the Japanese city Hiroshima. About 70,000 people were killed instantly and tens of thousands of survivors died in the months and years following from radiation poisoning. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The nuclear age was born. Wikipedia’s article on the two bombings is extremely detailed.

Devastated Hiroshima After the Bomb

View of devastated Hiroshima from the B-52 that destroyed it

Defenders of the bombings maintain that they were necessary in order to bring World War II to an end, but the morality of these bombings has been debated endlessly. Albert Einstein, whose own equations led to the creation of the atomic bomb, became a leading spokesman against the spread of nuclear weapons. To no avail, of course, and 69 years after Hiroshima we still live under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. The most powerful weapons available today are about 2,000-3,000 times more powerful than the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blinding light of a nuclear explosion is all too familiar to all of us from photos and videos and apocalyptic science-fiction films. As one survivor of Hiroshima put it in an interview this morning, “Atomic bombs were dropped not only on our cities, but on the whole human beings.”

The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki

The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki

But we Orthodox Christians have another blinding light to contemplate today – the light that shone from Jesus Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. This light was not destructive. This light spread out from the divine presence of Christ and touched the three disciples that were with Jesus; it touched Moses and Elijah, who appeared in a vision with the transfigured Jesus; it touched all creation; and it touches all of us who gaze on the beauty of Christ and believe in his name.

The rays of divine glory permeate all creation.

The rays of divine glory permeate and deify all creation.

The transfiguration of Jesus is the source of the Orthodox doctrine of deification. Most Christian churches and denominations believe in the idea of sanctification – that we can be made holy, sanctified – but only the Orthodox theological tradition is committed to the belief that the divine light that flowed and still flows out of Christ deifies human beings and all material existence!

Transfiguration mosaic at St. Catherine church on Mount Sinai

Transfiguration mosaic at St. Catherine church on Mount Sinai

As many of the Fathers of the early Church put it, “God became human so that the human can become God.” You can remove the capital letter from the second occurrence of God in this quote if you’re afraid of causing offense to God. It changes nothing. You can say, “God became man so that man might become god,” if that is easier for you. Just as you can write G*d, as some scholars do to imitate the Jewish practice of avoiding the name of God. You can write and re-write the names and words that stand for God. You can be politically correct – it doesn’t change the simple assertion that the light that emanates from the transfigured Christ touches all creation, deifying, purifying, making us and all creation capable of inheriting the Kingdom of God.

Human empires and war machines destroy. The blinding light of a thermonuclear weapon is the greatest offense that humanity has ever thrown at God; it is our Tower of Babel. The light that was God’s very first act of creation, by the very first words spoken by God by his Word (Genesis 1:1-3), has been turned into the vision of total destruction. The darkness that was overcome by the first light in Genesis now threatens to return once again, this time brought on by another light, the destructive light of human weapons.

The Hiroshima Dome after the devastation

The Hiroshima Dome after the devastation

The Hiroshima Dome remains today in the skyline of Hiroshima as the Peace Memorial, as a message of new life

The Hiroshima Dome remains today (center) in the skyline of Hiroshima as the Peace Memorial, as a message of new life (click to enlarge)

This is why we Orthodox must stand by the Light of Transfiguration. Let us not be ashamed to admit that this light is a deifying light, a light that prepares us for divine life of the Kingdom of God. Be deified today! That is the message of Transfiguration. Today is the day of salvation, today is the day when the light can penetrate our lives and transfigure us. There is a wonderful story about St. Seraphim of Sarov. It is rather long, but is well worth reading when you have some time to enter into a contemplative quiet. St. Seraphim in this experience recounted by a visitor, N. A. Motovilov, actually shone with the light of the Transfiguration, showing to all of us that it is possible to live a divine life by the grace of God while on earth. The mission of the saints, and the Church as a whole, is to sanctify the world, to be a blessing and a light in the midst of darkness. As St. Seraphim himself asserted, “Acquire the spirit of God, and around you thousands will be saved.” You don’t have to go into a monastery and cut yourself off from the life of ordinary people. Everyone can be touched by the light of divine glory; everyone can be transformed into light by the grace of God. Near the end of Motovilov’s narrative, we read:

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”

I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”

Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”

St. Seraphim of Sarov in the divine light with Motovilov

St. Seraphim of Sarov in the divine light with Motovilov

The Book of Deuteronomy tells us to choose life, not death: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…” (Deut 30:19) We believe in life, ALL LIFE! The Feast of Transfiguration is our teacher; it inspires us to yearn for the most meaningful life that we can possibly have. It tells us to reject death and all the powers and principalities of darkness, and to preach and promote life and light. This is the message of Transfiguration.

There are two messages on this date of August 6th: Life and Death. The Transfiguration stands against Hiroshima and shouts to us: CHOOSE LIFE! May Life be yours today and every day. May the divine Light of the Kingdom illumine your life and path every day.

A super-powerful hydrogen bomb is tested

A super-powerful hydrogen bomb is tested: Messenger of Death

 

Transfiguration of Christ: Messenger of Life and Glory

Transfiguration of Christ: Messenger of Life and Glory


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High Christology of Creation (Some Preliminary Thoughts)

Christology is the branch of theology that deals with the person of Jesus Christ. There are a few passages of the New Testament that are considered high points of christology. What is remarkable about these passages is that they seem to be fragments of early Christian hymns. It appears that the early Christians expressed their understanding of Christ in hymns before they attempted theological explanations. Or, perhaps it is more correct to say that hymns became the earliest forms of theology!

What is even more remarkable is that most of these early hymnic expressions of high christology link their exalted vision of Christ to Christ as Creator! We can’t look at Christ in isolation from Creation. This is something that Orthodox can understand, as so much of our faith is expressed doxologically, in words and actions of worship and praise. The Orthodox the feast of Transfiguration this week (August 6th) is one of the two feasts in the church calendar (the other being Theophany, on January 6th) that most explicitly celebrate the impact on creation of Christ’s coming in the flesh.

Creator of All (click to enlarge)

Creator of All

Creator of All Living Beings (click to enlarge)

Creator of All Living Beings

Let’s look at some of the lofty passages of christology in the New Testament. Consider Colossians 1:15-20.
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things 
in heaven and on earth
were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers.
All things have been created
through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, 
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come
to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God 
was pleased to dwell, 
and through him God was pleased
to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace
through the blood of his cross.
First Corinthians 8:6 is more concise: 
For us there is one God, the Father, 
from whom are all things
and for whom we exist,
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom are all things
and through whom we exist.
Hebrews 1:3 is even more concise:
He is the reflection of God’s glory 
and the exact imprint of God’s very being,
and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
And there is John 1:1-18, the amazing prologue to the Gospel of John that we read every Pascha at the midnight Liturgy. Here are the key sections of this great passage:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. 
All things came into being through him, 
and without him not one thing came into being
that has come into being.
In him was life, 
and the life was the light of all people.
The true light,
which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
But to all who received him, 
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God. 
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, 
and we have seen his glory.
From his fullness we have all received, 
grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses; 
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God. 
It is God the only Son,
who is close to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known.
How perceptive of the Orthodox tradition to read this Gospel passage at the Anastasis (Resurrection) Liturgy. The resurrection was the ultimate manifestation of Christ’s role in creation – in this case, the new creation. Christ, as the Word of God, was the One through whom everything in the original creation came into being. God created by the Word. Don’t just take John’s word for it. Listen to Genesis: And God said, “Let there be light… And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…” And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…” God created everything by speaking the Word. Christ as the Word was the Creator of everything that exists. Christ, as Risen Lord, brought about the New Creation. We are living in the new creation, and it is Christ’s continuing sanctification of the new creation that we celebrate on Aug 6th. Christ is transfigured on the mountain, and the icon shows the rays of divine glory radiating outwards from Christ and touching Moses and Elijah standing next to him, the apostles lying on the ground, blinded by the light, and all creation, including us who are members of the new creation!
Orthodox Icon of the Transfiguration (click to enlarge)

Orthodox Icon of the Transfiguration (click to enlarge)

In everything having to do with Creation, we see Christ: as the Word that brings everything into being; as the Risen Lord who brings about the new creation; and the One who sanctifies and deifies all creation with the glory of the Transfiguration. This the Christology of Creation!

The Blinding Glory of the Transfigured Christ (click to enlarge)

The Blinding Glory of the Transfigured Christ (click to enlarge)


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A Prophet like Jesus, Part 2

As Elijah flees from Jezebel, he enters a landscape where God was a familiar presence. God’s preferred hangouts were mountains and deserts. So Elijah flees to the desert again.

Elijah flees from Jezebel to the desert

Elijah flees from Jezebel to the desert

This time instead of ravens it’s an angel of the Lord who brings him food and drink. But this was not enough for Elijah; he needed something more to set him right after the momentous showdown with the prophets of Baal. So he goes further into desolate spaces; he travels forty days and forty nights and reaches Mount Horeb. What happens next is best quoted directly from the First Book of Kings 19:8-18.

He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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 a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Mount Horeb was the mountain on which Moses received the laws from God. Some parts of the Hebrew scriptures call it Mount Sinai; elsewhere it’s called Mount Horeb. Some scholars think it was in what today is called Sinai Peninsula; others think it was across the Gulf of Aqaba in what today is the Arabian Peninsula – its exact location is uncertain.

Mount Horeb?

Mount Horeb?

So Elijah flees to the mountain where God had appeared to Moses. Was he hoping that God would appear to him also? He was not disappointed. God speaks to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I love it when God asks questions like this, as when he asked Adam in the Garden, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) And just as Adam immediately began making excuses and casting blame elsewhere (in his case, Eve), so here Elijah does what most men of God seem to do: he starts complaining. Look at what I’ve done for you, God, while everyone else has forsaken you and broken the covenant. I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to kill me!

God will answer Elijah’s lament that he is the only one left who is faithful to God. But first God is going to “pass by.” What follows is a powerful echo of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23. And just as Elijah has experienced the trauma of facing Israel’s defection to Baal, so Moses had just experienced the people’s worship of the Golden Calf. Similar psychological situations; similar responses by God. Moses requested a favor from God; he wanted to see the glory of God. It was not possible. All God could do was to shield Moses in a cave and allow him only to experience the tail-end of God’s passing by; anything more would have destroyed Moses. So here with Elijah:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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 a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

God was not in the wind; God was not in the earthquake; not in the fire. But God was in the sound of a whisper, in the silence.

Elijah wraps his face after the whisper of God's presence

Elijah wraps his face after the whisper of God’s presence

And again, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” God prefers the quiet presence rather than the loud, spectacular fireworks. Moses wanted to experience the full show, but he got only the tail-end. Perhaps Elijah hoped for the same thing; he got only the whisper.

Many Christians look for miracles; many look for clear proofs that God exists. But God is not in the business of proving himself or catering to human vanity – even when the human  is someone as important to God as Moses or Elijah! No, God is subtle; God prefers the quiet way, the long-enduring way. Elijah is too full of himself; he is still not satisfied. God asks him again, “What are you doing here?” Elijah repeats his lament how he is the only one left who is faithful to God. But God corrects him. No Elijah, you’re not the only one, there are seven thousand others! Here are your instructions….

Let’s jump about 900 years to the future, when Jesus took three of his disciples up to a mountain in Judea. There he was transfigured and there appeared with him Moses and Elijah! The two men who wished to see God’s glory, God’s presence, finally got their wish, 900 years later in Elijah’s case, 1300 years later in Moses’ case! God does not act on our schedule. But Moses and Elijah finally did get their wish; they got to see the glory of God on earth. Because the glory of God was present in the face and body of Jesus Christ. The feast of Transfiguration is coming on August 6th, and it is one of the most glorious and most beautiful celebrations of the Orthodox Church.

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church. Elijah is shown on the left and Moses on the right (holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments)

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church. Elijah is shown on the left and Moses on the right (holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments)

The end of Elijah’s life was unique and beyond anything in the Hebrew scriptures, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha has become Elijah’s trusted disciple. Elisha knows that his master is about to be taken away, so he refuses to leave Elijah’s side. An amazing conversation follows:

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

Elijah’s question is innocent enough. But Elisha’s answer is anything but typical. A double share of Elijah’s spirit? That would be a very arrogant request if it came from anyone other than the man appointed by God to be Elijah’s disciple and successor. But prophets can speak like this, because they know their lives are not their own and it is God who is at work in everything they do. The “spirit” is the ruah of God, the breath of God that animates and inspires everything the prophets do and say.

Elijah answers Elisha. It is not in his power to grant Elisha’s request. God is in control. If God wants Elisha to succeed Elijah and receive double portion of the spirit. Elisha will witness the ascent of Elijah:

“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Elisha sees Elijah ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Elisha sees Elijah ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot.

And so it happens. Elisha sees Elijah’s ascent in a fiery chariot. The deed is done; Elisha will receive the double portion and will succeed Elijah as “troubler of Israel.” If Elisha had a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Jesus, of course, had the fulness of the Spirit resting on him. Jesus, too, was a “troubler of Israel.” But he is also the “troubler” of every nation that puts its trust in idols and false prophets; he is troubler of every power and principality that aims to dominate the human spirit.