At the end of the Prophet Elijah’s life on earth, he was accompanied by his assistant, Elisha. Together, they led an entire community of prophets, located around the old town of Bethel (the place where, centuries before, the Patriarch Jacob slept on a rock and dreamed of a stairway to heaven -- an ancient symbol of the Theotokos).
The day came for Elijah to leave: he prophetically knew it in his heart. So he started on his way to the Jordan River near Jericho. Repeatedly, he tried to tell Elisha to let him go alone, but his trusted friend refused to abandon him. Fifty other prophets also took the long hike to the Jordan.
At the riverside, Elijah told the fifty prophets to remain where they were. He took his sheepskin mantle and struck the water. Just like it did for Joshua and the Israelites almost a thousand years before, the waters divided, allowing Elijah and Elisha to walk safely across on the dry ground.
(This is another reminder of the Mystery of Baptism, and the deliverance that the Holy Trinity offers to all the faithful who follow Him and believe as He saves them from the eternal death of sin.)
Elijah then said to his assistant and heir what he should bequeath to him -- which was a difficult question, seeing as there was no material wealth to give away. Elisha simply, and boldly, asked that he receive “a double share of the spirit” that Elijah had. “You have asked a hard thing,” the elder prophet said, “yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you” (4 Kings 2.10).
While they were talking, “behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them.”
“Fire” was a theme of Elijah’s entire life. There was a fiery vision that surrounded his birth. There was fire that Elijah called down to prove the truth of the One True God, the Holy Trinity. There was fire that protected him from the aggression of the wicked king of Israel.
And now, there is the fiery chariot.
Anytime you read of “fire” in Scripture, you should wonder whether this is a sign of the Glory, or “Uncreated Energy,” of the Holy Trinity. And indeed, in this case especially, it is.
For the fire of the Chariot of Elijah is the same fire of Moses’ vision -- the Bush that did not burn. It is the same fire that guided, as a flaming pillar, the children of Israel through the wilderness for forty years. It is the same fire that protected Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the destructive heat of the Chaldean furnace.
This fire is the brilliant light that guided the Magi across the eastern deserts to worship the Infant Christ. It is the same brilliant light that the Apostles witnessed on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration (which we will soon celebrate). It is the light that blinded the persecutor Saul on his way to Damascus, which led to his baptism as the Apostle Paul. It is the same light that surrounded Jesus when He appeared to receive the soul of His Mother, the Theotokos, at her Dormition.
It is the same Holy Fire that dances and exults at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, at Orthodox Pascha.
Finally, this fire is the very same fire that shall purify and transfigure the entire Creation at the Last Day -- a fire that will be healing light for those who have repented, believed, and communed with the Love of the Holy Trinity … a fire that will be desperately hard to endure for those who refused to love, who would not step out of selfish ego and would not give Self away on the Cross.
Elijah stepped into the fire of the chariot and the horses, and ascended into Paradise.
He came back, one more time, on a different hilltop. This time was atop Mount Tabor, at the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, when this same fire of divinity poured through the Saviour’s physical flesh and showed to everyone -- as much as they could bear -- a prophecy of the Last Day that the Word of God would bring.
Elijah, whose heart was always friend to this Uncreated Light, stood there, gazing in wonder at God the Son Incarnate, with Moses, another visionary of this eschatological fire.From essence to existence, there is only Christological and Trinitarian communion: and this is the true lesson of the Consuming Fire and the Kindly Light that are the same flame.