“When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.’ And Elisha said, ‘I pray you, let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ And he said, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being 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 he creid, ‘My father, my father! the chiariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more.” (2 Kings 2.9-12)
“I don’t want to grow up... I don’t want to grow up...” So sang Mary Martin in Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s play about the boy who didn’t want to grow up. It was one of my favorite shows when I was a little boy. I wanted to be one of the children that were sprinkled with fairy dust and flew with Peter out of the nursery window to Never-never Land... “east of the sun and west of the moon”. But ultimately, Peter Pan is a very sad story. Wendy and her brothers and the Lost Boys who return with them do grow up, but Peter never does.
Human beings are programmed to grow up. We’re not supposed to remain children forever. And that is as true spiritually as it is physically.
Do you know the wonderful story of the prophet Elijah’s departure for heaven via a fiery chariot? Have you noticed the recent obsession with aliens and flying saucers? A few summers ago one of the season’s most popular movies was Contact, a tale of a human meeting with an alien civilization. The summer that Contact appeared was also the 50th anniversary of the so-called Roswell, New Mexico, incident, the site of an alleged UFO crash. It wouldn’t take much for a Hollywood producer to get hold of the story of Elijah and the fiery chariot and dress it up as the first account of an alien abduction.
I bring up the superficial similarity between the fiery chariot and a UFO to point out that when we read this story, we tend to emphasize the wrong thing. What is important about this story is not the amazing story of “the chariots of Israel and their horsemen”; what is important is the relationship between Elijah and Elisha. This story is not about a trip on a fiery chariot; it is about coming of age and becoming an adult.
Elisha was Elijah’s disciple or pupil. Elisha insisted on following Elijah around. Elijah went to Bethel and told Elisha to stay in Gilgal, but Elisha responded, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you”. Twice more Elijah tried to move on by himself, but Elisha insisted on following him. It took divine intervention in the form of a fiery chariot to separate the prophet and his disciple.
I think this story tells us something very important about the relationship between a teacher and a student or a parent and a child. A student is not supposed to remain with his or her teacher forever, nor a child with a parent. There comes a time when the student and the child must strike out on their own, and if this time never comes, then something is wrong: Either the teacher or parent is clinging to the student or child in an unhealthy way, or the student or child continues to remain in an immature relationship with their teacher or parent.
The great sign of maturity is that we have learned those things that we were supposed to learn from our teachers and parents and have incorporated those in our lives. When that happens then we are supposed to strike out on our own. It is a difficult, even painful moment, for both the child and the parent, but it is a necessary and inevitable pain.
The story ended happily. After Elijah ascended into heaven, Elisha picked up his master’s mantle or coat and wrapped it around himself. Then, like Elijah before him, he was able to command the Jordan to part as he walked across it. He had learned the lessons Elijah had to teach him, or to use the Bible’s phrase, he had received the “double share” of Elijah’s spirit that he asked for.
Whose mantle have you picked up and put on? Whose spirit have you been given a double portion of? If we are lucky, we have had parents who have taught us their lessons and given us their spirit. There may also have been teachers who have done the same for us. If we have really learned those lessons, then we will be capable of standing on our own. We will be capable of performing those deeds that we saw our parents and teachers doing during our childhood or apprenticeship.
Just as we grow up physically, so we grow up spiritually. Like small children who have had a marvelous time at a picnic, the disciples in today's gospel reading don't want the wonderful experience on the mountain top to end. But one of the most important things we learn as we mature is how to let go, and that it is as pathological to try to make "mountain top experiences" last forever as it is to hold on to negative experiences.
The lesson for the disciples and for us in the story of the Transfiguration is that the mountaintop is a place of learning and refreshment but not our home. Life moves from peak to valley and back again. What we learn on the mountain top is put to work in life's valleys, and the lessons we learn in the valleys prepares us for those mountain top moments when God's glory shines all around us.
After Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle and received Elijah’s spirit, he was able to do the miracles that Elijah had done. Can we expect to do the works that Jesus did if we learn his lessons faithfully? Will we find ourselves multiplying loaves and fishes and walking on water? I don’t know about the loaves and fishes or walking on water, but there are deeds of power that every Christian should be able to do. If we have been faithful in the school of Christ, then we should find ourselves loving our neighbors, forgiving our enemies, returning good for evil, trusting God for our daily needs, and giving of ourselves to others.
For like Elijah, we, too, have been given a new spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, through whom Jesus becomes our “Eternal Contemporary”, the unseen guest at every meal and the invisible companion on every journey.