Today is the Feast Day of Saint Ilia the Prophet (known in Greek as Elias and in Hebrew or English as Elijah).
He is venerated because he was in many ways an image (“icon” in Greek) of John the Baptist, and in some ways even an image of Christ; he denounced the powerful for apostasy and corruption, enlightened the Gentiles while the Jews lived in heresy, miraculously created inexhaustible supplies of food from meagre sources, and raised the dead from the tomb.
Ilia lived in the Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BC, when the Jewish State had been divided into two rival kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
From Wikipedia: “Elijah”
During Elijah’s life, the Kingdom of Israel had extensive cultural and trade links with heathen peoples to the north, including the Phoenicians (ancestors to today’s people of Lebanon, Syria and Malta). At a time when Israel was economically and militarily rather weak, the Phoenician states were incredibly wealthy as a result of their seafaring skills and their extensive trading network throughout the entire Mediterranean region (the city-state of Carthage in Tunisia, that later rivaled Rome, was founded by Phoenician traders.)
In the face of such economic and diplomatic power, the court of Israel cultivated close links with the Phoenician elite, and the king of Israel, Ahab, married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, who was an avid missionary for the idolatrous Phoenician religion of Baal. Priests of the religion of Baal were introduced to court, established a temple in the palace, and set up temples to Baal in Jewish communities throughout Israel to convert Jews to their faith.
Of obscure origin, Saint Ilia presented himself at court to deliver a message from God to King Ahab; there would be years of catastrophic drought so severe that not even dewdrops would form, because Ahab and his idolatrous queen stood at the end of a line of kings of Israel who are said to have “done evil in the sight of the Lord”. Because Baal was the Phoenician god of thunder, rainfall and dew, this was not only an admonition of the Court, but a direct challenge to the false god and all those who served him.
God warned Ilia to flee for his life to east of the Jordan River, and from there to the drought-stricken Phoenician States where he was to seek refuge with an idol-worshipping widow of no means. While evading capture in her house, she was frightened that her meagre supplies of flour and oil would be exhausted; Ilia commanded her to continue cooking for them and the food supplies would replenish themselves until the drought broke. Miraculously, her tiny supplies sustained her household for an extended period, considered by some to be a premonition of Christ’s Feeding of the Five Thousand.
While Ilia lived at her house, the widow’s only son died, leaving her heartbroken and destitute as she had no other means of support. Ilia prayed to God that her son would be restored to her, and miraculously the young man returned to life. This is the first documented case of resurrection in the Bible. The woman cried out in joy ” …the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”, acknowledging both the existence of the one true God, and the veracity of Ilia’s pronouncements and teachings.
It is fascinating that a Gentile was chosen to be the first to recognise Ilia’s authority and powers, at a time when he was held in contempt among his own people. This can be seen as a premonition of the many Gentiles who accepted God upon witnessing Christ’s miracles, at a time when mainstream Jewish society, royalty and the priesthood held Christ in contempt.
God commanded Ilia to return to Israel to announce the end of the drought, as a demonstration of God’s power rather than as reward for repetance; Ahab and Jezebel had been martyring many Jewish priests and prophets in Ilia’s absence. Confronting Ahab on Mount Carmel, a furious argument over who was responsible for Israel’s miseries and whose god was true ensued. Ilia finally challenged the idolatrous priests to a contest; whose god could light a sacrificial pyre without any human assistance would be acknowledged as the one true God. The priests of Baal failed in this challenge, and Ilia’s invocation of God’s name and power caused his pyre to spontaneously catch fire, while a massive thunderstorm raged and deluges of rain fell.
Ilia condemned the heathen priests to death, enraging Queen Jezabel, and he was forced to flee to Beersheba in Judah. Cared for by angels in the wilderness, he walked to Mount Horeb.
This was the location where Moses had received the Ten Commandments seven centuries earlier. Similar to Moses, Ilia was addressed by God in a cave, and Ilia vented his frustrations at the sinfulness and apostasy of the Jews. God revealed himself to Ilia through fire, wind and earthquake on the mountain, followed by “the still small voice of calm”, and commanded Ilia to prophecy the death of King Ahab and anoint his successor.
Ilia confronted King Ahab and prophesies that his entire kingdom will reject his authority; that Jezebel will be eaten by dogs within Jezreel; and that his family will be consumed by dogs as well (if they die in a city) or by birds (if they die in the country). Ahab repented of his sins and was spared by God but the prophecies regarding his family came to pass.
Knowing that his work was done, Elijah proceeded to the River Jordan with his disciple Elisha and parted the waters of the Jordan. They crossed the river, and then a fiery chariot took Elijah up into the heavens, with his mantle falling to the ground and Elisha taking possession of it while taking on Elijah’s role as prophet and spiritual father of the Kingdom of Israel. The English phrase “taking up the mantle” emanates from this biblical passage.
William Blake, the writer of the English hymn “Jerusalem” , in 1804 incorporated the vision of a Chariot of Fire as the manifestation of God’s divine energy; the hymn serves now as a de facto English national anthem and it was sung recently en masse at the opening of the London Olympics.
Saint Ilia has another great attribute of significance to Christians. In the Book of Malachi it is prophesied that “Behold, I will send you Ilia the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” This is widely interpreted as representing Saint John the Baptist’s mission prior to Christ’s passion and resurrection. Indeed, the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, was visited by an angel before John’s birth foretelling that John would turn the hearts of many towards God “in the spirit and power of Ilia”. Like Ilia, John was stern and powerful in his denunciations of corrupted nobility. He had the same connection with the wilderness, the same habits of asceticism in the desert, the same abrupt and commanding manner when addressing royalty, even the same clothing, a hairy coat and a leather belt.
He also is reported as being seen at the Transfiguration, the event in Christ’s life on Mount Tabor when his face began to shine and he was seen in conversation with Ilia and Moses.
The Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, His Holiness Ilia II, of course was named after the Saint, and so I humbly wish to extend warm greetings and deep respect on his Name Day, and wish him many more happy returns of the day.
Saint Ilia the Prophet’s hymns are presented below:
Troparion (Tone 4)
- An angel in the flesh and the cornerstone of the prophets,
- the second forerunner of the coming of Christ,
- Glorious Ilia sent grace from on high to Elisha,
- to dispel diseases and to cleanse lepers.
- Therefore, he pours forth healings on those who honor him.
Kontakion (Tone 2)
- Prophet Ilia of great renown,
- seer of the mighty mighty works of God,
- by your command you held back the rain!
- Pray for us to the only Lover of mankind!