A Fiery Carriage
''As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind as if into heaven.''
Frequent readers of this blog may have noticed that I rather like talking about 'types'--that is, characters or events in the Old Testament pre-figuring those in the New. As we enter Ascension-tide, it is worth reflecting on the story of the conclusion of Elijah's early life and how it relates to the ascension of Jesus' in the Book of Acts. Parallels are often drawn between these two stories and rightly so--both Elijah and Jesus deliver farewell addresses to their follower(s) before before an skywards ascent. As is often the case with 'types', it is what is different that causes one to think and reflect. There are two that I would like to explore in detail.
Let us first explore the question of destination. We know that Christ ascended into heaven--a unique occurrence in history. Indeed, Jesus says that 'no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man' [Jn. 3.13]. If that is the case, where is Elijah? It is important to note that the scriptures say that Elijah ascended not 'into heaven' but rather 'as if into heaven.' Apropos of this, Gregory the Great speaks of two distinct 'heavens'--one corporal and the other incorporeal. Elijah resides in the former, in a state of bodily and spiritual peace awaiting the end of time [cf. Homily 29, Gregory the Great].
At the risk of sounding like who one who spouts meaningless platitudes, it is not where you are going that is important but rather how you get there. Elijah's mode of transport is impressive--it is a fiery chariot with fiery horses that makes whirlwinds when it moves. It is similar to the four-dimensional, fiery and whirlwindy chariot that was seen by Ezekiel [Ezk. 1.4-28]. This is significant as this bizarre vehicle is owned and operated by God the Father. At his ascension, Elijah receives a lift in this vehicle which takes him into the skies. It is important to note that Elijah does not ascend through any ability of his own--instead, he is 'picked up' by God.
In a homily on the Ascension, St Photios the Great writes that Elijah's needing Divine assistance in the form of a fiery chariot is evidence of Elijah's imperfect human nature. In stark contrast, Jesus Christ, who is perfect humanity and incarnate God, ascends into heaven of his own volition and under his own Divine power. This time there is no need for the fire, chariots, and horses. Rather, the citizens of Heaven simply heed the cry of the Psalmist and await the return of the Son:
''Lift up your heads, O gates!
Be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of Glory may enter!''
Music: Gerald Finzi (1901-56)
Text: Edward Taylor (1646-1729)
Artists: Choir of St John's College Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
The quintessential Ascensiontide anthem must surely be Finzi's God is Gone Up. Despite its overt Ascensiontide text, it was first performed on St Cecilia's Day 1951 at St. Sepulchre's Church in Holborn, London. Beginning with an impressive fanfare, it is a wonderful portrait of our Saviour's triumphal entry into heaven.
Adam, AKM: Chariots of Fire (Sermon delivered on June 1st 2014 at Pusey House, Oxford)