Today, the Ember Wednesday of Lent, there is an extra reading before the gospel, about the miraculous feeding of the prophet Elijah:

He cast himself down, and slept in the shadow of the juniper tree: and behold an angel of the Lord touched him, and said to him: Arise and eat. He looked, and behold there was at his head a hearth cake, and a vessel of water: and he ate and drank and fell asleep again.

The Hebrew phrase translated as ‘a hearth cake’ is literally ‘bread of coals’ or ‘bread of embers’. So although the English phrase ‘Ember days’ is, according to the learned, simply a corruption of something else (the learned aren’t quite sure whether ‘Ember’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘tempora’, as in the Quattuor Tempora i.e. the four seasons, or of the Old English ‘ymbren’ meaning a circuit), it was a happy coincidence or happy instinct that produced it. As the prophet was fed from the embers and was able to go fasting for forty days and forty nights till he reached the mountain of God, so we draw our strength from these penitential days, and though we ourselves may be but embers in comparison to the great fire of the Holy Ghost that was poured upon the Church at Pentecost, we have still heat and fervour enough to bake from our penitential practices the nourishment that we need.

The Vulgate describes the bread that fed the prophet as panis subcinericius, literally ‘under-the-ashes bread’. The Septuagint version means the same: it uses the word ἐγκρυφίας, which contains the root that gives us the word ‘cryptic’, or hidden. The bread was baked inside hot ash, which would then have been brushed off. St Bonaventure sees in all this a type of the Holy Eucharist. Just as Elijah’s bread was hidden beneath the ashes, so our Bread is hidden beneath humble appearances. As the outer layer of ash had to be stripped away to reach the nourishment within, we must strip away the accidents by faith to reach the substance that will feed us.

Or perhaps also we could say that the ashes are the Passion of Christ, when He became disfigured for us beyond the sons of men, and His beauty was hidden beneath His sufferings. The fire of charity produced those ashes, and by that fire and beneath those ashes He made Himself our bread, to be eaten bodily in the mystery of the altar, to be eaten spiritually in the reading of the gospel. Yet Elias, after he had eaten and drunk, fell asleep again and had to be wakened a second time by the angel and fed a second time. The sleep of forgetfulness threatens us, even when we have received great benefits. May God in His mercy never cease to rouse us this second time until we come to His mountain where there will be slumbering and even sacraments no more.

Assumption

The last scene in Elijah’s life so far is well known. He was walking with his spiritual son Elisha in the region beyond the Jordan when a fiery chariot drawn by horses of fire parts them. As he sees Elijah ascend skywards in the chariot, Elisha cries out: ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its driver!’

The prophet Elijah is in a strange way a figure of the Blessed Virgin. At least, his life is evocative of her. His greatest miracle took place on Mount Carmel, the place more than any other which is used for one of Mary’s titles.  He cast his mantle over Elisesus to call him to the prophetic life. Our Lady casts the scapular, especially that of Mount Carmel, over her spiritual children so that they may imitate her fidelity to the Word. When the famine of three and a half years is about to end, Elijah sends his servant up to the top of Mount Carmel, and he sees at last a cloud no bigger than – what? The modern versions tend to say ‘a man’s hand’; but the Vulgate and the Septuagint, consistently with the Hebrew, which is patient of either sense, say ‘a man’s foot’. It is then a symbol of that heel, which God declared in Eden would one day crush the head of the enemy and bring to an end the famine of the Word of God.

Given such things, it is natural to see the assumption of Elijah, though it was not into the glory of heaven, as a prefigurement of today’s feast.

Yet there is more than this. The cry of Elisha, ‘The chariot of Israel and its Driver!’ seemed to pass into a proverb in Israel. For when Elisha also was at the end of his life, and lying on his death-bed, King Joash of Israel came to see him, and wept, and said ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its Driver!’ (3 Kings 13:14).  It is a cry of sorrow, no doubt, at parting, but also of hope. Joash does not speak to Elisha about the prophet Elijah but rather evokes that mysterious vision before which even Elijah had been silent. Who then are the Chariot of Israel and the Driver thereof? God after all did not need to send them; He could have taken up Elijah without visible means; so they must have some great significance.  It seems to me that they are figures of Mary and Jesus, coming to help the faithful in their dying moments. They do not come bodily, since the faithful do not ascend into heaven bodily until the end of the world. But they come spiritually, as the faithful are to ascend spiritually. Our Lady is compared to the ‘chariot’ and our Lord to the ‘charioteer’, to show that she is perfectly responsive to His will. Thus the same death-bed hope that under a veil of metaphor comforted the faithful ones of the old covenant now comforts the true Israelites who look with face unveiled to where Christ and His Mother await them in a holier place than that to which Elijah himself was taken.