Today Orthodox Christians celebrate the life of the Prophet Elijah, and what a life: He challenged two kings and a queen to their faces, spoke with angels, called down fire from heaven, multiplied flour and oil for a starving widow, raised her boy from the dead, caused rain to come and go by his prayers, and was finally swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot before being present at the Transfiguration of Christ. Because of his powerful ministry he’s remembered in Orthodox hymnody as “an angel in the flesh.”
But he was certainly a man, as James the brother of Jesus reminds us in his letter. “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours,” he says, and James’ point is clear: We’re to be like the great prophet.
Look at his life again. It’s a tall order. James’ focus was on prayer and he offers up Elijah as an example to us. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” he says and then reminds us that Elijah was like us because he wants us to feel confident that we can pray like the righteous prophet.
An ancient tribute celebrating the life of Elijah (possibly given by John Chrysostom) made the same point. After a survey of the prophet’s remarkable life, the speaker exhorted, “[L]let us do those works which God and Saint Elijah love, which are these: first of all — prayer, without which no one shall see God, for by the prayer which supported him Saint Elijah was able to ascend in the chariots of fire until they took him up to heaven to God.”
- “Let us … keep our souls and our bodies pure from every spot and impurity”
- “[L]et there be love in us towards each other, for love covers a multitude of sins”
- “Let us be humble and charitable, for pride and the love for money are the root of all evil”
- “Let us keep the judgment of upright faith which is alone our hope for cleansing our souls, our bodies, and our feelings”
- “Let us each endeavor to fulfill the holy ministration that we may partake of the holy mystery of the body and precious blood of our God” (recall that Elijah was given bread by an angel)
- “Let us give alms to the poor today, each one according to his ability”
Elijah was a human just like us, and by God’s grace, we can be just like him. It starts by cultivating a life of fervent prayer.