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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

"Elijah and the Chariot" by Salvador Dalí

Transfiguration: Elijah's mantle

On the last Sunday before Lent, we contemplate the pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry, whereby he concludes his Galilean days and sets his face towards Jerusalem. He invites his three closest disciples to go with him to the mountain summit, and receive a series of revelations: 1) Jesus’ face and clothing begin to shine; 2) the ancient Israelite prophets Moses and Elijah appear; and 3) a dense cloud descends, and a voice proclaims the words that were said at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son”. Except that at the baptism, only Jesus heard this message and it ended with “with whom I am well pleased”, but today, it is for the disciples to hear, and it ends with “listen to him”.

Year after year, this Gospel reading leads us into Lent, but our OT passages differ. This morning, we read about Elijah’s ascent into heaven via a chariot of fire. Elijah knew that this day would be his last one on this earth, and so did the large company of his followers and, most notably, Elisha, who inherited his ministry. They all went to the area near Jericho, the ancient site in the south of Israel on the river Jordan, where the Jewish people first entered their promised land. At this point, the crowd stood on Jordan’s West bank, while Elisha and Elijah were able to cross Jordan on foot through the miraculous parting of its waters -- just like the first Israelites did. Finally, a great whirlwind brought a fiery chariot down from heaven, taking Elijah back up with it and leaving Elisha stranded. This OT drama inspired many songs and poems, including the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the poem by William Blake (aka the hymn “Jerusalem”), and gave the title to the film “Chariots of Fire”.

But what does this powerful story have to do with our upcoming season of Lent, or today’s theme, Transfiguration? Of course, most obviously, Elijah appears in both stories, but the parallels do not stop here. First, there is an obstacle to overcome – climb a mountain, cross a river, or border – which requires effort and courage. If the Transfiguration mountain really was Mt Tabor near the Sea of Galilee, then it reached a height of 575 meters! In the past, it towered over the area, and of course there were no specially maintained hiking trails or mini-buses that are available to today’s pilgrims. In Jesus’ days, beacons were set upon it, and lit to signal to the northern villages the arrival of Jewish holy days. Isn’t it neat that it was there that the light of Jesus’ face announced the approach of his very last feast of Passover? Now, the place where Elijah first took his followers on his final journey was also on a hill -- but way over in the opposite end of Israel, in the south. It was also supposedly right there that Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist, also referred to in the scriptures as “the second Elijah” (Mal. 4:5)! It strikes me as important that this was, in fact, the place where Moses was not allowed to cross Jordan, the first Israelites and Elijah crossed it on dry ground, but Jesus did not hesitate to make a full plunge into its waters that flowed with the sins of all those people baptised by John.

The second parallel between the two stories is the “passing the mantle” from a leader to his dedicated followers; quite literally so in the Elijah passage, from which, in fact, this idiom originates. His mantle was all that remained of him, thrown on the ground by the whirlwind that took him up to heaven. Elisha picked it up, and used it to part the waters of Jordan to go back over to the West back, and continue Elijah’s ministry. At the baptism, Jesus inherited the ministry of John, who represented the prophets. And on the Transfiguration mountain, Moses and Elijah now “pass the mantle” of the Law and the Prophets over to the favored disciples (read, ourselves) to take over Jesus’ ministry.

Ultimately, the main link between the two passages is that God’s chosen participants, having been tested by a significant rite of passage and inherited the ministry, were also afforded a special glimpse into the usually hidden reality. This reality is not some special vision created just for them; it is veiled, but it is here all along. The whirlwind and fire surround us, the heavenly light continually shines into our earthly world, the voice from the cloud of unknowing has never ceased to speak from the beginning of time...

Yet, the fiery chariot was gone up in a flash. And, as much as Peter wanted to enshrine the moment, he knew that Elijah and Moses had to leave, and so would the glow on Jesus' face. The fleeting mystical experiences are always a gift, and there is nothing we can do to conjure up or hang on to them. But our intellectual understanding of God, our relationships and vocation - those we can achieve, to an extent, with equal measures of our own efforts and God’s help. Think of these as that mountain climb, or the river crossing, which take us to that special place, where faith opens the eyes of our hearts.

So, have you ever “been to the mountaintop”? I wonder if in saying these words, Martin Luther King hinted that he, like Elijah, had the premonition that the day of this speech would be his last day on earth. How many days do all of us have left to achieve our dreams -- God’s dreams -- for us and for other people, before we are “carried home”? “Swing Low” has the words, “I'm sometimes up and sometimes down, but still my soul feels heavenly bound”. Indeed, each passing moment of our lives has infinite potential to be transfigured. We may look around us and wonder if this is all there is to this life. We may have a longing for God who is tangible, approachable, and active: casting out our demons, calming our storms, satisfying our hunger, and even healing the mothers-in-law... But let us remember, instead, to be fully present to all these. Let us not miss the partings of the thin veil of our daily whirlwinds that afford us a vision of the reality that lies beyond our final crossing of the River Jordan - a vision of freedom from all the evils of this world. Thanks be to God.

William H. Johnson, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ca. 1944, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.52

Edward Knippers