Model Ascetic - A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Prophet Elias (2020)

August 02, 2020

Model Ascetic - A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Prophet Elias (2020)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

INTRODUCTION

The benefits of reading the lives of the saints is not the fruit produced from living in similar external circumstances but the fruit produced by imitating their virtues; in so doing, one does not so much participate in the life of the saint as he does in the life of God. As Christ revealed to the Pharisees that through their works, they show themselves to be the children not of Abraham but of the Devil, so to those who, through striving to attain the Kingdom of God, show themselves to be the children of God.

NARRATION

Today, whereon we celebrate the feast of the Prophet Elias, the “Father of Prophets,” we recount his life, which was pleasing to the Lord as confirmed by many signs and wonders he performed.

St. Epiphanius of Cyprus informs us that when Elias was born, his father, Shobach, had a mysterious vision - that noble men greeted the child, wrapped him in swaddling clothes of fire and gave him a fiery flame to eat. He declared this vision to the Jerusalem priests who said to him: “Fear not, thy son will dwell in light and judge the Israelites with sword and with fire.”[1]

Elias lived in the ninth century BC in the Northern Kingdom of Israel at the time when King Ahab began to reign. The author of the Book of Kings writes that Ahab did more evil in the sight of the LORD than all that were before him, provoking the LORD more than any of the previous kings. He took a wife, the princess Jezebel, daughter of King Sidon of Phoenicia, who was also a priestess of the Pagan god Baal, the supreme god who ruled over the heavens and the earth, who sent rain, and made the earth fertile.[2] Ahab built a temple to Baal and installed priests to serve in the temple and placed his wife as the priestess (cf. 1 Kings 16. 29-34).

At this time, the Prophet Elias, who is a Tishbite, is introduced. He approaches King Ahab and says, “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” (1 Kings 17.1). Elias then left the presence of the king settling east of the Jordan near the brook Cherith from which he would quench his thirst with its water; his food would be brought to him by ravens – bread in the morning and meat in the evening, as the Lord had commanded.

When the brook dried up, the Lord lead Elias out of his desert abode and from this moment we learn of the many feats and exploits of this proto-prophet – by his word the heavens would not bring forth rain, he miraculously affected a widow’s cruse of oil to never go dry and for her never to be left without bread meal; he raises to life a youth who had died; he draws fire down from heaven before the prophets of Baal; we see God manifest Himself to Elias on top of Mount Horeb in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19.12). At the end of his earthly life, Elias hands down the prophets mantle to Elisha (1 Kings 19.19), and before the two are separated, Elisha asks that Elias give him a double portion of his spirit (2 Kings 2.9). As they are walking together towards Bethel, Elias is ushered into a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire and taken upwards into the heavens. As he ascended, his mantle fell to the earth and was picked up by Elisha, who then received a double portion of Elias’s spirit (2 Kings 2. 9-12).

That God was with Elias is obvious, but how did Elias live; how did he live so as not to drive God away from him, to live as one who pleased God and in whom God was pleased to dwell? In answering this question, we will understand why he is a model for Christians and especially a model for ascetics and monastics.

Prophet Elias and the Ascetic Life
  1. Wilderness

The Book of Kings records two times in which Elias gives himself up in obedience to the LORD by going to live in the wilderness, relying solely on Him to sustain him. God says to Elias, “go,” and he does so without question. This first occurred after he rebuked King Ahab and next when he feared for his life after the slaying of the prophets of Baal. Both times, it is the Lord who directs Elias to the wilderness; it is not a plan which he himself undertakes.

The Prophet does not recline in the comforts of cities or towns but instead finds lodging in the austerity of the desert where there is no comfort, no shelter, and no safety. He lives in poverty, relying only on what God gives him and goes only where God directs him. 

  1. Virginity

Refusing the comforts of domestic life, Elias also rejects the pleasures of companionship, seeking the life of virginity.

[The life of virginity], St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, prevents the nobility of the soul from being lowered by those sensual outbreaks, in which the mind no longer maintains its heavenly thoughts and upward gaze, but sinks down to the emotions belonging to the flesh and blood… To look with a free devoted gaze upon heavenly delights, the soul will turn itself from earth; it will not even partake of the recognized indulgences of the secular life; it will transfer all its powers of affection from material objects to the intellectual contemplation of immaterial beauty. Virginity of the body is devised to further such a disposition of the soul.[3]

  1. Food

Elias did not partake even of modest food but was dependent only on what God would send him. At the brook of Cherith, his water came only from that brook, and his food is whatever the raven from God brought him – bread in the morning and meat at night. The desert-dwelling forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist, ate similar food consuming only honey and wild locust. At the same time, our Lord, at the beginning of his ministry, goes out into the desert for forty days and nights. In so doing, He reveals the purpose of such activity when the devil tempts him with food, for He responds by saying, Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God (Matt. 4.4) for this is the true sustenance of man, this gives him life, this is what satisfies and sates the soul of man not the satisfaction of food and drink.

  1. Clothing

Even his garments are unique and identified him as the prophet. He did not wear the soft silk found among the inhabitants of palaces nor the common clothes of the people.

St. John Cassian notes that Elias is identified by how he dressed. When sick, King Ahaziah sent messengers to consult Baalzebub, the god of Ekron, as to whether or not he would regain his health. The prophet, being instructed by the LORD, intercepts these messengers and announces to them that the king will die because of his idolatry. When the messengers report back what they heard, the king asked, “How was he dressed?” They replied, “He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And King Ahaziah said, ‘It is Elias the Tishbite.’” (2 Kings 1.8)

  1. The fruit of asceticism

The fruit of such asceticism and strictness in life is evident in the life of the Prophet Elias, for, by his word, the heavens withheld their rain, food multiplied, the dead raised, the power of God made manifest, the communion of God with men made known, and the presence of God with men made apparent.

It is God in him who worked these wonders; however, God only works in someone to the degree that one exercises the senses of their soul, writes St. Macarius the Great.[4] One must attend to the working of the Spirit within oneself as well as the plotting of the evil one so that he may learn how to preserve and nurture the grace of God. St. Ephrem, the Syrian indicates the evidence of this in the Prophet’s life when he writes:

Since Elias repressed The desire of his body, he could withhold the rain From the adulterers.

Since he restrained his body, He could restrain the dew from the whoremongers Who released and sent forth their streams.

Since the hidden fire, bodily desire, Did not prevail in him, the fire of the high place Obeyed him, and

since on earth he conquered Fleshly desire, he went up to the place where Holiness dwells and is at peace.[5]

The degree to which one exercises one’s spiritual senses and learns to preserve and nurture the grace of God, the more one matures in the Christian life and is transformed. Through his life in the desert, fasting, virginity, austerity, obedience, Elias’s spiritual senses were transformed, enabling him to perceive and enjoy the spiritual life, to experience spiritual realities over and against the bodily senses.

St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain describes this transition from bodily pleasure to spiritual pleasure, noting, 

When the spiritual realities are being enjoyed by the mind, the physical and painful pleasures are not only hated; the senses are not only dormant and inactive (i.e. taste, touch, sight, etc.), but they accordingly participate together with the mind in the enjoyment of those spiritual delights… Through the enjoyment of these spiritual pleasures of the mind, in which these senses partake, the whole body internally and externally is refined, enhanced, beautified, strengthened, and transfigured to be more spiritual. For this reason, it does not need bodily food to be nourished, nor sleep to rest, nor does it feel weariness. The body is thus nourished and rested and renewed by a divine nourishment and rest and enjoyment.[6]

GROWTH IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

At this point, perhaps someone would disagree. Maybe someone would say, “You are telling me that austerity in food and clothing, desert-dwelling, deprivation of relationships is like exercise to the soul and strengthens and gives life to the soul of every woman and man engaged therein; and that as one grows one learns to delight in spiritual realities and over and above the physical ones of touch and taste and the sight of earthly objects. So tell me, if Elias was such a person, why did he fear Jezebel after he raised the dead and performed miracles never before seen? Why would he fear at all?”

Although Christ’s Apostles witnessed his miracles and listened to his teachings, all but one abandoned him at His betrayal and crucifixion. However, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Day of Pentecost, each was then able to sacrifice his whole life for Christ, even if it meant martyrdom. Elias’s experience is similar. He did not abandon God, but we can see the development of his life. Yes, by his word, the rain stopped, Yes he raised the widow’s son and upstaged the prophets of Baal with fire from heaven, but Elias still matures, grows, and progresses because he is not perfect.

Spiritual delights do sustain an individual and fortify one to struggle more, to desire spiritual realities more than earthly ones. Still, life is not static or motionless but fluid and changeable, making us continually susceptible to the many vicissitudes, changes, and fluctuations in life. For the Apostles, God responded with the descent of the Holy Spirit. For Elias, the Lord appeared to him in a still small voice.

We should note that in his fear, Elias does not remain paralyzed, lethargic, or listless. Instead, in the face of fear, he continues to struggle spiritually, fleeing to the desert and, strengthened by an angel, he fasted for forty days and nights, not abandoning his own labors, until the LORD appeared to him in the still, small voice. He did not give up these spiritual exercises but continued to apply himself to them. Though weary in spirit, he fortified himself with fasting. God then met him on Mount Horeb and spoke with him, strengthened him, and encouraged him.

CONCLUSION

What abundant and immense grace Elias received, and when Elisha asks only one thing of Elias before he departs this life, it is to receive a double portion of that grace. Elisha is then granted this request because he witnesses Elias being taken to heaven in a horse and chariot of fire from which Elias casts his mantle, and from this mantle, Elisha receives grace.

If only such grace were so present nowadays, someone might say. But… it is, as St. John Chrysostom says,[7] if only we make ourselves worthy of it, for how much more grace do we receive in the Holy Mysteries when we consume the Body and Blood of Christ? All that eat and drink of this food are quickened and deified.

The Body and Blood of Christ is purification, enlightenment, and salvation;

They are the health and sanctification of soul and body;

They lighten the burden of many sins;

They expel and prohibit evil and wicked habits, mortify the passions, enable the keeping of the commandments;

They are the application of divine grace which bestows the Kingdom of God;

They are a bulwark and help;

They are the destruction of enemies;

They are the blotting our of many transgressions;

They drive away every phantasy, and evil practice and activity of the devil working mentally in our members;

They bestow confidence and love towards God;

They correct one’s life unto steadfastness, virtue, perfection and the fulfilling of the commandments;

They are the enlightening of the spiritual senses.

As Christ has said, “Everyone that eateth My Flesh and drinketh My Blood abideth in Me and I in him”… for whosoever partaketh of the divine and deifying grace is no more alone, but with Thee, my Christ, the three-sunned light that enlighteneth the world.[8]

Brothers and Sisters, may we wash the inside of the cup with spiritual exercises and fill it with the grace of the Lord.

THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF THE PROPHET ELIAS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.

 

[1] https://orthodoxdenver.org/files/Bulgakov/0249.pdf

[2] St. Ephrem the Syrian, “On the First Book of Kings” in Ancient Christian Commentary, “Old Testament”. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), V.99.

[3] “On Virginity” in NPNF, 2nd series, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)5.351f.

[4] Homily 50 , George A. Maloney trans. (Mahwah, Paulist Press, 1992), 245.

[5] “Hymns on the Nativity, no. 14” in Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns.(Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989), 144.

[6] Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, Peter A. Chamberas, trans. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989), 230.

[7] “Homily II”, Concerning the Statues in NPNF, 1st Series, Philip Schaff, ed.  (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) 9:354.

[8] Cf. “Pre-communion Prayers” in the Jordanville Prayerbook.




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