Mar Elias – St Elijah the Prophet – 20 July
Mar Elias (Syriac Elia, English Elijah) is widely venerated by the Maronites and many Maronite Churches carry his name. For Christians, his story is found in the Old Testament in 1 and 2 Kings. He was a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahab in the 9th century BC. He defended the worship of the Jewish God over that of the Canaanite deity Baal. God performed miracles through Elijah, including raising the dead, bringing fire down from the sky and allowing him to ascend into Heaven through a whirlwind.
His story is also known in the Jewish and Muslim traditions. Mar Elias is an important figure in early Syriac writing, including in Aphrahat, Ephrem and Jacob of Serugh. For further analysis on Elijah in the early Syriac tradition see Gerard Rouwhorst – Religious Stories in Transformation: Conflict, Revision and Reception.
We often ignore the Old Testament scriptures, but they are essential to our understanding of the New Testament. Over the next few weeks read about the prophet Elijah. His story has captivated Christians, Jews and Muslims alike and provides invaluable lessons for us all.
St Elias Hadchit – An Example of Maronite Spirituality
In his book “An Introduction to the Maronite Faith” Fr Yuhanna Azize speaks of the Maronite village spirituality and the tradition of visiting the saints”:
“The relationship with the patron saint is another aspect of what I think is one of the characteristics of the Maronite approach to spirituality: the belief, and more than the belief, the feeling and conviction that God is here and the divine is in our very midst. This has to be balanced with the Maronite understanding that we still have efforts to make: yes, God and his saints are here, but we have to open our eyes to see them, and to obtain the favour of God. For this reason, Maronites often went on pilgrimages to the shrines of saints, especially if they had an urgent prayer to make, or sought the healing of their diseases and the resolution of their problems.”
On this feast day of St Elias, we see a perfect example at St Elias Hadchit. Rising high on Mountain above the main village of Hadchit, the Monastery of St Elias overlooks the Maronite villages of the north.
The villagers believe that St Elias himself visited the mountain. On one side can be seen the Patriarch’s summer residence in the Diman.
Also the villages of Hadeth El Jebbi, Hasroun, Bazoun and Berkacha. To one side is the region of the Cedars. Below, one can see the deep sacred valley of Qannoubine.
On the other side can be seen Bann, Kfershgab and beyond can be seen Ehden and the Mediterranean Sea.
Generations of Maronites have made pilgrimages up the mountain to fulfil a nadir (vow). Fr Yuhanna explains:
These pilgrimages often went hand in hand with the system of the nadir or “vow”. The roots of this actually go back to ancient Phoenicia and the Old Testament. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states:
Vow … specifically refers to a person’s explicit commitment to perform a favour for a deity if the deity will respond to his or her request for a favour. … Vow making was typically motivated by a desire for divine help in daily life, particularly in distress. Vows undertaken at a sanctuary in a complaint ritual in connection with a prayer for deliverance would be fulfilled with the complementary ritual of thanksgiving, including public praise of God as well as sacrifice (Psalm 22:23-26 …) … No one was obliged to make a vow, but once spoken, a vow was irrevocably in force, and failure to fulfil it could have negative consequences.
In our tradition, the vows might be made for the intercession of a saint. It is not quite right to say that the person making the vow undertakes to perform a favour for God or the saint. But they do intend to do something pleasing to them, even if only to erect a public testament to the faithfulness of God or the saint. It is also essential to the idea of a vow that a person not already be obliged to perform the act in question. For example, a man would not make a vow to God to be a good father: that is already his duty. But he could vow to walk 20 miles in order to obtain the grace to be a good father.
It adds to the value of a vow is, partly, that it binds the will. Of course a person can promise to do something at any time. But they can also change their mind, or simply fail to perform as undertaken. A vow is different: you not only promise to do something, you bind yourself. It is not merely a solemn promise. It is a commitment of yourself. Further, as the vow is made to God (even through the intercession of a saint) then it is an act of worship. The same cannot be said of just any promise. Being an act of religion, the vow adds merit to the good deed.
The Church of St Elias on the mountain is a cave which has been enclosed.
It is small and for that reason the village has expanded the site and built a large open area where large Mass services and events can be held.
Also on the site is a large statue of St Elias himself and a large cross which is lit up at night and can be seen from the surrounding villages as far as Hasroun and the Diman.
A cedar tree has been planted in remembrance of the Patriarch Daniel Hadchiti.
Below, is the hidden plateau of Ayn Bakra. This is a fertile oasis which is mainly ploughed by the Lebanese Maronite Order and where all sorts of crops are grown.
In 2 Kings 2:9-11 we are told of St Elias’ ascent into heaven:
“When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. “
Standing on the mountain of St Elias in Hadchit, so high and so close to heaven, it is not difficult to imagine this event. It is good to visit such holy sites with our children and to remind them of their sacredness. It allows us to experience the awe and magnificence of God’s creation and allows to feel a sacred connectedness.
St Elias – Pray for Us
20 July 2017
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