Asking For What He Wanted

From Homily II.15, “Sermon for the Ascension” (ca. 720-735) 

Elijah presented an image of this festivity of the Lord [i.e. the Ascension] by a miracle of rich significance. When the time in which he was to be taken away from the world was near, he came to the river Jordan with his disciple Elisha. With his rolled-up cloak, he struck the waters, they were divided, and both of them crossed over on dry land. And he said to Elisha, “Ask what you want me to do for you before I am taken away from you,” and Elisha said, “I entreat you that your spirit may be come double in me.” As they went on conversing together, behold Elijah was suddenly snatched away, and, as the scripture says, “he ascended as if into heaven.” By this action of his soaring aloft it is meant that Elijah was not taken up into heaven itself, as was our Lord, but into the heigh of the air above the earth, from where he was borne invisibly to the joys of paradise… 

Let your love take note, my brothers, how the symbolic event agrees point by point with its fulfillment. Elijah came to the river Jordan, and, having laid aside his cloak, he struck the waters and divided them. The Lord came to the stream of death, in which the human race was ordinarily immersed, and laying aside from himself for a time the clothing of flesh, struck down death by dying, and opened up for us the way to life by rising. After the water of the Jordan was divided, Elijah and Elisha crossed over to dry land: by rising from the dead, our Savior bestowed on his faithful ones the hope of rising too.  

After they had crossed over the river Jordan, Elijah gave Elisha the option of asking for what he wanted. The Lord too, after the glory of his resurrection had been fulfilled, implanted in his disciples a fuller comprehension of what he had promised previously, that “whatever you ask in my name, I will do for you.” Elisha asked that the spirit of Elijah might become double in him. The disciples, thoroughly instructed by the Lord, desired to receive the promised gift of the Spirit, which would make them capable not only of preaching to the single nation Judah, when Christ himself had taught, but to all countries throughout the globe as well. Did Christ not pledge the double grace of his Spirit when he said, “A person who believes in me will himself do the works I do, and he will do even greater ones than these?”  

As Elisha and Elijah were conversing together, a chariot with fiery horses suddenly snatched Elijah as if into heaven. By the chariot and fiery horses, we are to understand the angelic powers, of whom it is written “he makes the angels his spirits, and his ministers a burning fire.” Elijah being an ordinary person had need of them in order to be raised up from the earth. The Lord too was suddenly taken up as he was speaking with his apostles, and as they were looking on. Although he was not assisted by the help of angels, he was served by an angelic band of companions. 

The Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) was an English monk, teacher, and scholar, one of the most influential figures of the early Middle Ages. He was famed in his lifetime for his Biblical commentaries, and is best known today for his great history of the English church and people. His expositional homilies were preached to the community of monks among whom he lived at Monkwearmouth. His feast day is May 25. The translation used here is from Lawrence Marton and David Hurst, eds, Bede the Venerable: Homilies on the Gospels, Book 2 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991).   

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