Elijah at Banias

Prophet and Patron

      July 20th is the Western Christian feast day of Saint Elijah, "...the prophet as of fire, [whose] word burned like a lamp." Ecclesiasticus 49:1   Elijah, or Saint Elias, is arguably the greatest prophet of the history of the kings of the Jews and the first since Moses himself to have been granted a theophany — a conversation with God.   In Hebrew he is called LYHWH, or Elyahweh / Eliahu, meaning "Yahweh is God".   To Christian and Druze Arabs he is Elyas.   To certain Muslims, Sufis in particular, he is Khizr or Khidr.   By confusion of history and mystery he may also be the original of Saint George the Dragonslayer.   Most germane to the congregation of Hope Lutheran, he is the original patron saint of our church here in Saint John, New Brunswick.   Let us consider these various iterations of Elijah in their order of appearance.


      Elijah is an extremely important historical figure in the Old Testament, described as "...an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. II Kings 1:8   He was a Thesbite from Gilead, the son of Harim Ezra 10:21.   He is a prophet who first appears in I Kings wherein we learn yet another sad tale of Hebrew backsliding into idolatry and their subsequent punishment by God.   Elijah appears before King Ahab in Samaria as the messenger of the Lord and pronounces His curse in response to the idolatry of Ahab and his wife Jezebel: "...there shall be no dew or rain [in Israel] these years, but according to my word". I Kings 17:1   Unheeded by Ahab and threatened by Jezebel, Elijah flees for safety: first into the wilderness to the brook of Cherith, sustained by food brought by the ravens at God's command, then to Zarephath in Sidon.

      As Ahab persists in allowing the worship of Ba'al within Israel a great drought and famine descends upon the land.   After three years of drought Elijah returns and exposes the futility of worshipping the false gods of the Tyrians.   On the summit of Mount Carmel Elijah demonstrates that it is not Ba'al, but Yahweh who is the true God.   He throws down the Tyrian altars and causes their false priests to be slain by the people of Israel, allowing the rain and dew to return to the land.   But he is again threatened by Jezebel and once more flees for his life, to Bir Sheba, then to Mount Horeb where he speaks with God on the summit of the mountain, then into the wilderness of Damascus. I Kings 19:1-15

      The Books of Kings tell us that Elijah was the instrument through which God worked miracles: the resurrection of the widow's son at Zarephath I Kings 17:20-24, the lighting of the altar on Mount Carmel I Kings 18, and the parting the waters of the Jordan II Kings 2:8.   He pronounced God's curse on Ahab and Jezebel, annointed kings over Syria and Israel, appointed Elisha his successor as prophet, and was taken up bodily into heaven. II Kings 2:11


      Elijah last appears in the Bible when he appears in the New Testament in company with Moses, speaking with the transfigured Christ atop the high mountain (Mount Hermon?). Mark 9:1-13 & Matthew 17:1-13   This is an important point of convergence of the Old and New Testaments as it completes the prophecy "Behold, I will send you Elijah before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord" Malachi 4:5 and reveals that the spirit of Elijah had been reborn in John the Baptist. Luke 1:17   Here also is a point of convergence for the congregation of Hope Lutheran, for just as Elijah is the original patron saint of our church, Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of our city.


      The faith and fervour of Elijah won for him a dedicated following in later ages.   The mountain we call Mount Carmel is known to the Arabs as Jebel Mar-Elyas, and various places upon the mount are to this day greatly venerated among both Christians and Muslims: Elijah's grotto; El-Khadr, the supposed school of the prophets; El-Muhraka, the traditional site of Elijah's altar; Tell el-Kassis (Mound of the Priests), the traditional site where the priests of Ba'al were slain.   The monks of the Carmelite order long maintained that the origin of their Rule could traced back in unbroken succession to Elijah whom they asserted was their founder — an innocent though spurious claim.


      When Mohammed, the great Prophet of Islam, began relating his visions in Arabia he was, and remained, a teller of an oral tradition.   He was familiar with the history of the Bible from the numerous Jews and Christians with whom he came into contact in his trading business, but oral tales are seldom related accurately, or completely, or in context.   It cannot be known what Mohammed heard from other tellers, only what he related to his listeners.

      What is sure is that Muslims held and continue to hold the prophet Elijah in high esteem.   To them he is Elyas, Khizr, or Khidr, the "Green Prophet", the "Verdant One" whose footsteps leave a green print.   He is in effect a spirit of nature.   On the Golan Heights, the Druze associate Elijah's brook of Cherith with the abundant springs of Banias, a location once sacred to the Hellenic nature spirit Pan, whose temple is now buried in the collapsed caves from which the springs surge forth.   A Druze oath sworn on the name of Elyas is considered unbreakable.

      To certain Sufis, Elijah, as Khizr, became the patron saint of cannabis, an herb not forbidden to Muslims and whose properties were considered by some to be sacred.   It is perhaps through this route that Elijah became the unwitting original of the Old Man of the Mountain whose Hashashin (Assassin) followers descended from their wilderness strongholds to wreak death upon the apostate and the enemies of Islam.   This is not much of a stretch for it was from the wilderness that Elijah emerged to curse Israel for Ahab's apostasy.   It was to the wilderness that he returned to escape the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, and it was in the wilderness that he was sustained by food brought to him by the ravens or, as some translators argue, the Arabs.   It is no surprise that Qal'at al-Subeiba (Qal'at Namrud or Nimrod's Castle) on the slopes of the Golan Heights, above the springs of Banias, was one of the great strongholds of the Hashashin.


      In Syria, the locus of Hashashin power, Khizr came to be associated with Saint George the Dragonslayer, a largely undocumented historical figure with a legend of many unsubstantiable miracles attributed to him.   The association between Elijah/Khizr and Saint George may have come about through another confusion of biblical tales wherein Elijah, who overthrew the priests of Ba'al upon Mount Carmel became associated with the deeds of another biblical hero, Daniel.   The Apocrypha relates the story of how Daniel both exposed the priests of the false god Bel and also slew the great dragon (crocodile?) of Babylon.

      The earliest version of the tale of Saint George and the Dragon purports to come from Libya where it may be a local tale embellished, or a biblical tale relocated in time and space.   Told as tales half remembered in a haze of cannabis smoke, Elijah and Daniel perhaps merged into the same story.   Whatever the truth or how it became transformed into its present condition, Khizr has indeed been credited with miraculous deeds that no one biblical figure can claim as his own.   The transformation of the name from the Arabic Khizr to the the English George is not much of a leap, especially as it passed through several languages along the way, and today the Western Christian feast of Saint George and the Muslim commemoration of Khizr are marked on the same day: April 23rd.   Coincidence?   Perhaps, or perhaps not, because the Orthodox Church and various localities mark Saint George's day on widely different dates.   Interestingly, on Malta's isle of Gozo Saint George's day is a moveable feast, marked on or about the same day as that of Elijah.

      No one knows the history of Saint George with any certainty because it has been obscured by so much legend, but the likelihood that Elijah and Saint George are one and the same person is so small that it may as well be dismissed.   If they are the same person, then it is really Elijah who is the patron saint of England, Canada, and of many other places.   If we had to trade Saint George's anachronistic shining armour and bright lance for Elijah's leathern girdle and unshakeable faith in God we would not be making a poor bargain.


      So now we come to the 20th century and a group of Danish immigrants founding a Lutheran church in Saint John, New Brunswick.   Why did they pick Elijah as their patron?   We don't know for sure, but we can guess.   The Danish Lutheran church of the era, the 1920s and 1930s, was marked by two contending though not opposing streams:   the traditionalist Pietists and the revivalist Grundtvigians.   Both streams were marked by fervent considerations of loyalty to faith and land which could easily be seen as echoes of Elijah's Old Testament message.   Perhaps the fact that the congregation's organizing meeting was held outdoors in God's green fields inspired their choice of the Green Prophet as patron.   Perhaps the association between Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elijah was a consideration.   Perhaps those Danes were influenced by the thought of Elijah's ravens for anciently and until the battle of Lyndanisse in 1219, the raven was the symbol of Denmark.   We just don't know why, from out of a long list of possible worthies — angels, prophets and saints — Elijah was chosen, but he was, in a tiny homage to the way in which God Himself chose Elijah to be the only prophet since Moses to be granted theophany.   On the summit of Mount Horeb God showed Elijah wonders and spoke to him, not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in a small still voice.   Elijah heard that small still voice, held to his faith in God, and was justified by it alone, just as Luther taught our forebears that we are justified by faith alone in God alone.

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Established 24 April 2006 and last amended 21 May 2006