He was a man of holiness and generosity; but also a man who could countenance the cruelest violence. His very name confessed his loyalty to God—but also prefigured the loneliness that can follow any man with such loyalties. He was Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah “the Stranger”: the Hebrew prophet the Armenian Church will remember this Sunday.
As the “model” prophet, Elijah cuts a gigantic figure in the Old Testament, with his name and influence echoing through the New. He even makes a personal appearance in the Gospel, alongside Christ and Moses, during the cosmic vision of the Transfiguration.
But he was truly an isolated figure in his day: a friend of God in an age when all his countrymen (so it seemed) had abandoned their holy heritage; when a profane ruling class had infected the people with the spirit-killing disease of idolatry.
Elijah was a severe opponent of the pagan cults imported into the court of the Israelite King Ahab, and his early prophetic career was marked by divine signs and miracles. But at the very moment of his vindication—his extravagant triumph over the pagan idols, leading to the horrifying slaughter of their priesthood—Elijah’s fortunes turned.
A public vendetta against him by the infamous Queen Jezebel sent Elijah into hiding. In fear for his life, he scaled the mountain where Moses had once received the Ten Commandments, to stand in the presence of his God. A hurricane wind, a mighty earthquake, a blazing fire all passed before him. But God (Scripture assures us) inhabited none of these.
Only a “still, small voice”—a gentle whisper in Elijah’s hearing—was recognizable as the sign of God’s presence. And the Voice asked the prophet: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Weary in body and spirit, Elijah could only answer as one who had given his all, in a lost cause. “I have been your champion, Lord,” he said. “But the people have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left. And now they want to kill me, too.” Earlier he had dared to utter a prayer of even deeper bitterness: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
But God’s reply to the prophet’s spiritual exhaustion was a miracle of mercy and simplicity. He gave Elijah a human companion to share his burdens. The young plowman Elisha would be the chosen disciple for Elijah to instruct; the “son” who would carry the prophet’s mantle in the next generation, extending Elijah’s achievements—and perhaps correcting his mistakes.
There would be further adventures for the prophet—and no respite from the hardships of his vocation. But after the experience on the mountain, Elijah’s heart was eased enough to permit him to peacefully depart this world—which he did in the most dramatic way imaginable: carried away to heaven in a chariot of fire.
But his story doesn’t end there. Subsequent generations, reflecting on his mysterious departure, insisted that Elijah would one day return, as a herald of the Messiah. The preaching style of John the Baptist so closely resembled Elijah’s that observers of the day thought the two might be one and the same. Though John directly disabused people of that notion, Jesus attested that John was indeed the spiritual successor to Elijah, who had come to announce Christ’s advent.
Armenian spirituality holds that Elijah never actually died. Our haunting requiem hymn paints a word-picture of the “Supernal Jerusalem” (Ee verinn Yerousaghem) where Elijah still lives in vastly advanced old age, alongside the antediluvian patriarch Enoch. The inscrutable classical Armenian word aghavnagerb (usually translated as “dove-like”) describes their present state, offering us a dim glimpse into what it might be like to live as an immortal resident of God’s heavenly city.
The story of Elijah “the Stranger” is told in the Books of Kings (1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 2), with its uncanny sequels related in the gospels and our liturgy. In preparation for his remembrance this Sunday, welcome “The Stranger” into your heart.
Christopher H. Zakian is the communications director of the Eastern Diocese.
Above: “Elijah in the Desert” (1543-47) by Daniele da Volterra.