St Elijah: the prophet of the end times

On 20 July — the liturgical feast of the prophet Elijah in the Carmelite order — the priest goes up to the altar in red vestments, although St Elijah did not shed his blood for the faith. On the contrary, as we know from Scripture, he is not yet dead. He will return in the last times as a forewarning of the Antichrist, to preach to and convert the Jewish people; and then, according to tradition, he will shed his blood in the city of Jerusalem. It is in view of this glorious martyrdom that the Carmelite liturgy adopts red vestments — in a prophetic manner.

Elijah is the prophet of the living God. His very name, which means “Yahweh is God”, is the true programme of his life. This is one of the greatest men of the Old Testament, standing in the presence of his God, devoured by zeal for His glory. The words in the third book of Kings, Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum — “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts” (3 Kings 19:10) summarise the essential feature of his physiognomy, whose symbol is fire (Sir 48:1), as outlined with extraordinary vivacity in the sacred text.

After Solomon’s death, the twelve tribes of Israel split into two great kingdoms: that of Judah and that of Israel. The first, made up of the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, had Jerusalem as its capital; the second was made up of ten tribes — with its capital in Shechem, then in Samaria. The prophet Elijah, who lived in the desert of Gilead in Samaria, belonged to this latter kingdom. A virtuous and austere man, he wore a camel hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist, full of zeal for the God of hosts, he went out of the desert three times: to threaten Ahab, the seventh king of Israel, and Queen Jezebel, who had perverted the people by dragging them into idolatry; to put to death the 450 prophets of Baal whom he confounded on Mount Carmel; and to announce to the king, who had taken possession of Naboth’s vineyard, that he would be killed, and to the queen, that her blood would flow where Naboth’s blood had flowed and that the dogs would devour her flesh. For all these reasons, Ahab, Jezebel and the Israelites persecuted Elijah, who had to flee to Mount Horeb to escape death. When Ahab’s son Ahaziah later became king, Elijah sent word to him that he should not consult Beelzebub, the god of Ekron, as he intended to do, but the God of Israel. Ahaziah then sent him a captain with 50 soldiers to induce him to come down from the mountain and account for his words. Elijah answered the captain, “If I be a man of God, let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee, and thy fifty”. And fire came down and devoured him and his fifty men.

Later, Elijah went to the Jordan with Elisha, and when they had crossed the river, a chariot of fire with horses of fire separated them from each other, and Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha then put on the mantle that Elijah had dropped and received his double spirit.

The double spirit that Elijah left to Elisha was passed on to the hermits of Mount Carmel, who, with the advent of the awaited Messiah, gradually formed themselves into a religious order, whose coat of arms in the form of a shield reveals its “Elijahic” origin. In fact, it is surmounted by an arm with a sword of fire and a ribbon with a biblical quotation. The arm is that of Elijah, who holds a sword of fire, and the ribbon bears the inscription, Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum. The arm and the sword show the ardent passion of Elijah for the absoluteness of God, whose “word burnt like a torch” (Sir 48:1). For the Carmelites, Elijah is the solitary prophet who cultivates a thirst for the one true God and lives in His presence. Like him, they carry “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Carmelite Rule no. 19), and he is for them a model of action, but above all, a teacher of prayer and contemplation.

In his Epistle, the apostle St James offers us, as a model of prayer, the fervent and powerful prayer of the holy patriarch Elijah, who obtained from God first a complete drought upon the fields of Israel for three years and six months, and then an abundance of rain. At his prayer, the dead rose again; fire fell from heaven three times in punishment of idolaters; the Lord manifested Himself on Mount Horeb by a light breeze, and by a small cloud above Mount Carmel — a mysterious symbol of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. St Isidore affirms that all the actions of Elijah’s life were nothing but a continuous prayer, Elias in sancta meditatione assiduus, from which was born the holy Family of the contemplatives of Carmel. Simeon Metaphrastes, the great Byzantine hagiographer of the tenth century,  suggests that anyone wanting to understand the spirit of a religious order should study the spirit of its founder, who is the spiritual father of all its religious. But in Elijah, he adds, the burning fire and zeal of soul are so intense that they must be studied by all.

At the end of his earthly existence, it was fire in the form of a chariot and horses that carried the prophet Elijah to an unknown place. Suarez affirms it to be a matter of faith that Elijah, as well as Enoch, is not dead. St Augustine confirms that “neither Enoch nor Elijah have suffered corruption in all this time”. “Enoch and Elijah,” St Jerome maintains, “now have the same bodies that they had when they were transported” to the place of their mysterious sojourn. St Gregory specifies, “St Elijah did not escape death, but for him it is only delayed.”

Regarding the place of his sojourn, some authors maintain that Elijah and Enoch are in the earthly Paradise, thought to have escaped the universal deluge, others in an unknown but pleasant place known by God alone. What is certain, in both cases, is that they possess an extraordinary power of contemplation and love, in which they prepare for their final mission. Elijah, in the place where divine Providence has placed him, and about which theologians tell us nothing certain, prays without ceasing for men — in continuous ecstasy, according to St Gregory — in seraphic contemplation and in sweet and gentle conversation. In the exercise of this sublime prayer, the ecstatic prophet receives that abundant and sovereign light with which he is to come one day to illuminate the world. And this is why St Bernard gives him the name of light of the world: orbis lumen.

“Enoch and Elijah are happy,” St Bernard continues, “because they live only for God and are occupied with Him alone, contemplating Him, loving Him and enjoying Him.” Suarez maintains that it is entirely consequential to their state that they have been confirmed in grace, although they can no longer earn merit during their long sojourn. Their ability to merit, in fact, according to Suarez, has been suspended until their return, whereupon they will complete their mission with preaching and the shedding of their blood. St Thomas states that Enoch and Elijah “will live together until the coming of the Antichrist”. This truth, which the Fathers recognised almost unanimously, Suarez maintains to be de fide or proxima fidei. In the last times, the mission of Enoch and Elijah will be to preach in penitential garb against the Antichrist. Enoch’s special mission will be to convert the Gentiles, while Elijah’s will be to convert the Jews, who still, in their Passover liturgy, leave an empty place for him precisely to recall his presence at the end of time.

They will come, dressed in sackcloth, to call souls to penance and poverty. And also, Aquinas adds, to indicate that the Church at the end of time will return to the times of her youth — when the Baptist preached, dressed in camel hair. Enoch and Elijah, like mystical bridges, will join the beginning of history to its end.

St Elijah will therefore be a preacher and apostle of Jesus Christ in future times, when the Antichrist will persecute the Church of God, according to the seventeenth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, in which our Lord Jesus Christ himself says that Elijah will come and restore everything — Elias quidem venturus et restituet omnia, because then — as Malachi prophesied, he will appear as a forerunner of the second coming of Jesus Christ in the world.

Against the effective preaching of Enoch and Elijah, who will win over Jews and Gentiles, there will be unleashed the infernal anger of the Antichrist, who will try to kill them: something that God will allow, to add the palm of martyrdom to their crown. According to numerous Fathers and other important authors, these last two apostles will be put to death in Jerusalem, as was our divine Redeemer, and their bodies — thrown into the square — will remain without burial for three and a half days, according to the prophecy of St John (Apoc 11); but after these three and a half days, the two saints will rise again in glory and will ascend to heaven, body and soul, in a luminous cloud, before the eyes of the Antichrist and his supporters.

The death of Enoch and Elijah will be followed immediately by the defeat of the Antichrist, because these two apostles of the end times, according to Tertullian, “are set aside to destroy the Antichrist with their blood”.

According to Fr Frederick William Faber, founder of the London Oratory, Elijah had the heart of a warrior and the intellect of a seraph. This is demonstrated by his faith, which was so heroic that it earned him the merit of being its first defender on earth, as St Michael had been in Heaven, against the rebel angels. This happened in that public auto-da-fé held on Mount Carmel, when, by order of King Ahab, 850 false prophets were gathered together, whom Elijah confused with shrewd irony and destroyed, thereby earning from St Bernard the title of defensor fidei.

The ardour of this saint of fire — whom Chrysostom called “angel of earth and man of Heaven”, who was brought to the place of his mysterious sojourn by that fire over which he had exercised a special power on earth — has made him a kind of “eternal man” who awaits the hour of God to set men’s hearts aflame with the fire of divine love. In the place where he lives with Enoch, Elijah prepares for his final mission. Since, by the special privilege of seeing her veiled in the mysterious little cloud above Mount Carmel, he became the first devotee of the Most Blessed Virgin, it is believed that he spends this time in imitation of her whom he loved with admirable anticipation. It is at the school of the Mother of God that the prophet of the end times prepares to face the Antichrist, awaiting two heavens: the heaven of the earth, where he will shed his blood, and the Heaven of heavens, where he will enjoy, at last, the vision of that God for whose glory he was zealous with incomparable ardour.

The tumultuous times that the Church and the world are experiencing, if they are not the times of the antichrist, are certainly a prefigurement of it. The prophet Elijah, whom we await according to the scriptural prophecies, is even now a model of action and contemplation, of faith and hope, of incandescent love for the one true God and of total refusal to compromise with error. Finally, the holy prophet and patriarch calls everyone to the most extreme generosity in the service of God; that generosity which will bring Elijah back to earth to shed his blood, whereby he has earned in advance the title of martyr.

If modern Christianity has relegated the great prophet Elijah to the ranks of mythical characters, may we have the wisdom to follow the faith of our Fathers that only childish infatuation prides itself on ignoring.