Feast of St. Elisha

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One of the gifts of the Byzantine calendar is its inclusion of Old Testament saints. Today and tomorrow the eastern rites of the Catholic Church honor St. Elisha on June 14 and St. Amos on June 15.  The painting above is Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunamite by Frederic Lawson.

Elisha, a ninth century BC prophet whose story is told in the First Book of Kings, is known as Elijah’s helper. Everyone knows about Elijah. For centuries believers have read Elijah’s powerful warnings against the worship of idols. (And don’t think by idols Elijah means odd, many-limbed statues; he means exactly what idol means today: trusting armed might more than God’s might, putting the will of the king above the will of God.) We all worship idols and resist the ones who command us to put them away.  So Elijah grew weary in the work and needed assistance. He found it in Elisha, who was plowing a field when Elijah called him forth by throwing his cloak over him. It’s hard not to love Elisha, whose only request was that he be allowed to kiss his father and mother good-bye. “And then I’ll follow you,” he told Elijah.

Elijah understands that he has sentenced the farmer to a hard and lonely life, so he relents and sends the man home one last time. Elijah slaughters his twelve yoke of oxen, and boils their flesh to feed his kinsmen and women. Then he sets off with Elijah.

Though not a preacher like Elijah, Elisha lived out his prophetic calling in his deeds.  With his master, they reminded the powerful of Israel of God’s love and care for the stranger, the widow, the outcast and the orphan. They called all Israel to protect the poor in God’s name. You can read their stories in First and Second Kings, though Elijah is featured more prominently in the earlier book and Elisha more prominently in the latter.

Read Second Kings 2: 1-14 today. We see the love between Elijah, who will soon be taken up into the air, and Elisha, who refuses to leave his master’s side. Only God can part Elisha from his teacher, his guide and his friend. Scripture tells us Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. As he stood and watched, Elisha cried out, “My father, my father.” Elisha never rejects or disputes God’s will that he must go on without Elijah, but we see his human grief and pain at their parting.