by Linda McMillan
QUICK! When I say Elijah what do you think of?
If you said that he was the champion of Yahweh who brought down fire from the heavens, you’d be correct. And if you said that he raised a man from the dead, you’d be right again. If you said that he founded a school of prophets, was fed by ravens, or hid in a cave, you’d still be right. You could say a thousand amazing things about Elijah and be correct. But, those are not the things you first thought of are they? Of course not. The first thing we all think of is those rings of fire, the white-hot chariot, and the blazing horses, the whirlwind, and Elijah’s mantle wafting back down to the ground, all that is left to prove that he was ever here.
When someone famous — or somehow common to all of us — dies, the first thing we want to know is How? Why? Was there a blaze of glory or was it quiet and peaceful? Perhaps we are looking forward to our own deaths or maybe just curious, but it’s hard to imagine hearing of someone’s death and saying, “Oh, OK. Thanks for letting me know.” We want information, details, we want to know how those final minutes went down. It’s human nature.
In the readings for today, Jesus had already died, been resurrected, and walked around the Galilee teaching and healing for a while. Well, for forty days, to be exact. It was all pretty dramatic, not something one would forget.
And it’s not just Jesus, any celebrity death can be a dramatic event. It may become the one thing we all remember. A hundred people might remember a hundred different things about President Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Princess Diana, but the one thing we all remember is how they died. Whether it’s assassination, car crashes, or crucifixion, it is this last detail that we all remember.
The memory of a celebrity death is the thing that turns us from followers into mere fans. Occasionally one or two others will take up the mantle, as Elisha did. The work of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Princess Diana goes on. A few have taken up their mantle. But, most of us are just fans, we are not following their examples.
It is no wonder, then, that when Jesus died, was resurrected, and ascended up into Heaven, complete with golden feet on a puffy little cloud, angels were required to snap everybody out of their reverie. It was dramatic stuff! The kind of thing you remember. “Men of Galilee” the angels said, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” But what they might have said is, “Why are you so interested in this very last thing? Why aren’t you out doing the things he told you to do?”
Many Christians today are mere fans of Jesus. We can go to church all day long, come back later for adoration of the blessed sacrament, listen to the choir practice, so holy, and muse to one another about how the diocese might be better run. We have plenty of time to gaze upon icons or up into Heaven as those we read about today did. But it seems like the one thing we don’t get around to doing is actually following Jesus.
The drama of his death, burial, and glorious ascension is something we can all remember, Episcopalians do it every week, it binds us together, and it feels kind of holy the way the chalice is raised and we remember. But, this is not the work of ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is, it doesn’t help reintroduce the world to its creator.
So, let me ask you: What are you doing gathered around this table? Are you a fan, or a follower?
Linda McMillan lives in the island city of Yangzhong China – Home of the Pufferfish.
Image: Ascension Chapel, Walsingham
Some Notes of Possible Interest
I want to recommend a book called Acts For Everybody, by N. T. Wright. You can get it on Amazon, and it’s available for Kindle. In my reading and thinking this week, I was reminded of it. And now that I know you can get it on Kindle I may buy it again. It has been out for a while, so it’s not the newest fad, but I think it’s well worth a look. A very easy read. And, as commentaries go, something of a page-turner.
In Torah forty is a number of new beginnings, starting over, or beginning a new thing. You may remember that Noah was in the ark for forty days before humanity embarked on a new start; Moses was on Mt. Sinai for forty days before returning to a new nation; Moses would go on to lead this new nation for forty years before they began to understand what had happened to them at Sinai; and the Talmud tells us that when we reach the age of forty we experience a transition into a different level of wisdom. So, the writer of John didn’t chose this number randomly. It has significance.
In ten more days – for a total of fifty – Elijah’s fire will return in an event we call Pentecost. Holy fire will rest on each person. There is further significance to the number fifty, and to the appearance of fire, but that is for another story!
Deuteronomy 29:3-4… But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. 5 I have led you forty years in the wilderness.
I am indebted to Brian McLaren’s We Make The Road By Walking, for the connection between the Ascension and Elijah as well as the idea that when someone goes out in a blaze of glory it can cause us to become fans more than followers. Those are his terms, not mine. Too good not to pass on, though. You can get it at Amazon, and it is available for Kindle.