Vol. V, May 1999


Taken up by "horses of fire" (2 Kings 2,11)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

It was Elijah who together with Moses appeared to Jesus on Mount Tabor "in glory and spoke of His departure ... at Jerusalem" (Lk 9,31). Elijah had gone before Christ not only in the agony he suffered at the death threat of Jezreel, and in his journey of "forty days and forty nights" through which he "went in the strength of that (Angel’s) food ... to Horeb the mount of God" (1 Kings 19,8) — a reminder of the Lenten 40 days through Easter up to the Ascension — but also in the way Jesus ascended to heaven: "He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight" (Acts 1,9). St. Bernard teaches, "The rapture of Elijah was an expressive type of the Ascension of Christ into heaven" (Serm. 3 and 6 on the Ascension). What happened to Elijah?

1. Elisha accompanied Elijah, "when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind". Elisha wanted to inherit the graces of Elijah. He begged him: "let me inherit a double share of your spirit." Elijah responded: "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if you do not see me, it shall not be so." "And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and cried, ‘My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more" (2 Kings 2,1.10-12).

Elisha received the grace to behold Elijah’s departure, whereas the "sons of the prophets", who were seeking Elijah in the area, did not receive the grace to see him taken up to heaven. Exegetes see the holy Angels in this vision as those who took Elijah up to heaven. "They were really Angels, who assumed the form of fire and took Elijah up according to the words of the Psalm: ‘Who makest the clouds thy chariot, who ridest on the wings of the wind, who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers’" (Fr. Cornelius a Lapide, cf. Ps 104,3-4; Heb 1,7). In fact, many references in the Sacred Scripture indicate this as the only reasonable interpretation of the text.

2. How are the "chariot of fire", the "horses of fire", and the "whirlwind" to be understood?

a) First, let us consider the image of the vehicle. A vehicle is only for someone who is making a journey. As a symbol, therefore, it may be applied to our journey of life in this world. But, we are also on our way to our eternal destiny beyond this life. Of course, no material car will ever bring us to eternity. That is the reason why Elisha saw a "chariot of fire". This recalls Ezechiel’s description of the Cherubim: "a great cloud with brightness round about it, and the flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, ... and from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures ... Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them ... over their heads there was the likeness of a throne ... and seated above ... was a likeness as it were of a human form" (Ez 1,4f.15.26). The Psalmist may be referring to them where we read: "He rode on a Cherub, and flew; He came swiftly upon the wings of the wind" (Ps 18,11). Habakkuk asked once: Was it "..., when Thou didst ride upon Thy horses, upon Thy chariot of victory?" (Hab 3,8)! And Isaiah said, "Behold, the Lord will come in fire, and His chariots like the stormwind, to render His anger in fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire" (Is 66,15). Not only God is said to be "fire" - "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12,29), "His tongue is like a devouring fire" (Is 30,27), and "His voice flashes forth flames of fire" (Ps 29,7) etc., — but also His servants, the Angels. St. John calls them "torches of fire" (Rev 4,5), and already Moses referred to them in this fashion: "The Lord came from Sinai ... He came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at His right hand" (Dt 33,2). Similarly in Daniel we read: "His throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before Him; a thousand thousands served Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him" (7,9f.).

b) Together with the "chariot of fire" Elisha also saw "horses of fire". Horses are impressive animals of great power, and men were tempted to trust in the horses strength rather than in God (cf. Ps 20,8; 33,17). They were especially used in wars (cf. e.g. Ex 14,9.23; 15,1). In the prophetical books, horses or their riders are symbols for the Angels (cf. Jerusalem Bible to Sach 1,8); according to the Apocalypse, for example, one of the four living creatures will open four of the seven seals and call four horses with their riders (cf. Rev 6,1-8; Sach 1,8ff.; 6,1-8); and "the number of the troops of cavalry was twice ten thousand times ten thousand" (Rev 9,16; 19.14.21).

c) The "whirlwind" by which Elijah was taken up to heaven, is also a symbol for the presence and efficacy of the Angels, because God, "who makest the clouds Thy chariot, Who ridest on the wings of the wind", "makest the winds Thy messengers", as "fire and flame Thy ministers" (Ps 104,3-4 and Heb 1,7). In fact, in discussing the question of whether it is fitting for the Angels to accept the use of a body, St. Thomas explains that Angels can do so by condensing the air into figures and colors of bodies (St. Thomas Aq., ST, I,51,2 ad 3). Lapide’s conclusion, therefore, may be accepted: "This fiery car, which took Elijah on high, was formed by Angels with clouds".

3. a) "Our Redeemer does not need either a vehicle nor the Angels," observed Cornelius a Lapide in his commentary to the text; He ascended by His own strength. And St. Gregory stated: Elijah was taken up by a car; this proves clearly that even a pure man needs the help of some one else (cf. hom. 29 in Ev.). To help creatures in their need to reach heaven belongs to the holy Angels. To this end God said: "Behold, I send an Angel before you, ... to bring you to the place which I have prepared" (Ex 23,20).

b) The holy Angels are the servants of God and of those who belong to Him. They are sent to our salvation, that is, that we might reach our place which is heaven. Everything about them serves us as a "chariot" which conveys us to God, for they mediate "ascending and descending" (Jn 1,51). St. Thomas sees the qualities of the Angels well expressed by "air" and "fire", air is a very fitting medium for messages, and fire befits such heavenly messengers. Moreover, the receptivity and the velocity of the "air" corresponds to the Angels who are totally receptive and communicate quickly what they receive (cf. Mt 18,10; Rev 1,1). "Fire" is a fitting image for the Angel as far as it is very active like the Angels (Ps 104,4); its heat is a symbol of their charity (Cant 8,6); and as St. Thomas states (cf. Super Ep. Ad Heb., I,7; Mar. Nr. 58), as the fire always moves upwards, so do the Angels defer always to the glory of God (cf. Tob 12,6).

c) Elijah was not the only man translocated by the holy Angels in Scripture. We have the example of Habakkuk who was in Judea when, "the Angel of the Lord took him by the crown of his head, and lifted him by his hair and set him down in Babylon" to bring Daniel his dinner; and then he "returned him to his own place" (cf. Dan 14,31-39; see also the deacon Philip, Acts 8,26.39). And concerning our journey to eternity, Jesus taught: "The poor man died and was carried by the Angels to Abraham’s bosom" (Lk 16,22). This doctrine is incorporated by the Church "in her liturgy, [where] the Church joins with the Angels; ... invokes their assistance ... in the funeral liturgy’s In Paradisum deducant te angeli ... [‘May the Angels lead you into paradise ...’]" (CCC 335). In a word, the Church asks for the holy Angels to lead and accompany the soul on its way to the judgement seat of God.

We may conclude with St. Alphonsus: "The prophet Elijah was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot, which, according to interpreters, was no other than a group of Angels who bore him off from the earth. ‘But to conduct thee to heaven, o Mother of God,’ says the Abbot Rupert, ‘a fiery chariot was not enough; the whole court of heaven, headed by its King, thy Son, went forth to meet and accompany thee.’" ("Discourse VIII.2: On the Assumption of Mary", TAN, The Glories, 389).

4. Dear Brothers in the priesthood, the Church teaches that Jesus sent the Apostles to "proclaim that the Son of God by His death and Resurrection had freed us from the power of Satan and from death, and brought us into the kingdom of His Father" (II. Vat., On the Liturgy, 6). Our destiny, with body and soul, is in heaven, as we believe in "the resurrection of the body". Therefore, if we "have been raised with Christ", let us "seek the things that are above, ... set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Col 3,1-2).

Let us recognize our weakness, and ask the holy Angels for help. Let us pray again our "Priest’s Prayer", saying:

"Send forth Your Angels as flames of fire to purify our hearts, to teach us anew holy reverence before You ..." Let us pray daily, perhaps at Compline, that the holy Angel may intercede for all the souls of the dying in the next 24 hours and accompany them to the throne of God so that He grant them mercy.

May our pastoral charity emulate that of the holy Angels: full of zeal they care with ardent love for the eternal salvation of each individual entrusted to their care! May Our Lady procure us their help and assistance so as to become pastors of souls with and like the Angels!

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC