Elijah and his protégé Elisha trek toward Bethel, then Jericho, and then the bank of the River Jordon. During this journey, a chorus of prophets chants, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” (2 Kgs. 2:3, 5). Something bitter is about to happen: the loss of a deep communion, the end of a shared life. Elijah tries to blunt the pain, saying to Elisha three times, “Stay here” (2 Kgs. 2:2, 4, 6). But love is deep, and love remains.
When Elijah first passed by Elisha and touched him with his mantle, Elisha disposed of his property, killed his oxen, boiled their flesh, fed the people, and then, with no bread, no bag, and no money for his belt, “set out and became the servant of Elijah” (1 Kgs. 19:21). The soul of Elisha was knit with the soul of Elijah. Thus, the impending end of Elijah’s presence could only evoke pain. “As the Lord lives and you yourself live, I will not leave you” (2 Kgs. 2:2, 4, 6). Where you go, I will go, says the pure heart of Elisha. Still, the end is coming.
“What may I do for you, before I am taken from you?” Elijah asks (2 Kgs. 2:9). A void opens. What is to replace the space and body, face and touch, of Elijah? Elisha says he wants a double portion of the spirit of Elijah, and as a token of it, after the whirlwind carries Elijah up and out of sight, Elijah’s mantle falls from the heavens. Elisha takes it, holds it, and instantly feels the sacramental sorrow that loss gives to things. Like the weeping widows of another story, he has only the consolation of an outward and visible sign. “All the widows stood, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39).
Just before the crucial moment of Elijah’s departure, the two men are walking and talking. What do they say? Perhaps Elisha repeats his promise of “I will not leave you.” Perhaps Elijah the prophet, foreshadowing the One who is more than a prophet, says, “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). Finally, after the whirlwind, Elisha stands alone, holding Elijah’s mantle, pausing on the bank of the Jordon. “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he cries. The question is an invocation, and God is pleased to act. “Your way is through the sea, your path through the mighty waters” (Ps. 77:19).
Jesus calls like Elijah. He walks by and gladly gives his mantle, even the hem of his garment, to any who would touch him. At his calling, a disciple drops everything, boils the oxen, feeds the people, buries the dead, says goodbye, and then, impoverished, walks out to Jesus, or perhaps not. Being more than a prophet, he calls for a yet greater commitment. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 9:62). Indeed, no one looking back or forward or side to side is fit for the kingdom of heaven. The Spirit of Christ alone makes fit the unfit, makes worthy the unworthy, forgives the sinner, and raises the dead. The only good reason for going with Jesus is that he is the way, the truth, and the life.
It is difficult to see Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. He is leaving. He is gone. And yet he is always here, alive in the home of the heart and the touch of things.