Sunday, February 4, 2018

II Kings 2.1-12: What Elijah Wore

The chariot of fire in which Elijah disappeared usually gets all the press (II Kings 2:1-12, Transfiguration B). And why not? It doesn't happen very often that someone is swooped up off the earth and taken to be with God in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire.

But the actual transfer of power is described in the text (though it's in the next verse after the lectionary portion). It's an action that has a legacy in a reasonably familiar phrase. When someone "assumes the mantle" or "takes up the mantle" of someone else, the language is a direct descendant of this story of the prophets. Elisha assumes the mantle of Elijah literally and metaphorically. He asks for and is given a double portion of Elijah's spirit. After the chariot and horses and Elijah disappear, Elijah takes up Elijah's mantle and begins his own journey. 

The text doesn't tell us where the mantle was between verses 8 and 13. In verse 8 Elijah rolls up the mantle and strikes the water so the two can cross the Jordan River. The next time we see the mantle it is on the ground, and Elisha is picking it up and wrapping himself in it. 

Many artists assume that Elijah tosses the mantle down from the chariot. A search for images of Elijah and the chariot will be heavy on flames. Sometimes the flames envelop both the chariot and horses. Other artists have flames only on the feet of the horses and the wheels of the chariots. Among the details the artist might have included a fabric cloak in mid-air.

Compositionally, the cloak ties the heavenly portion of the subject with the earthly portion. The twisting, turning cloak can become a line uniting the chariot passenger prophet with the prophet who waits, looking up expectantly. Often the mantle, the cloak, is red, a vivid color that is related to the flame colors of the chariot and contrasts with a blue sky. But a 13th-century Italian fresco offers a different color palette. And an additional point of meaning.

The Prophet Elijah Taken to Heaven on a Chariot of Fire.13th century. Crypt of St Mary Cathedral, Anagni, Lazio. Italy.
In this fresco the horses and chariot show no actual flames, but they are the red and yellow of fire. Elijah sits in the chariot holding the reins, driving the team. He wears green clothing and holds out what we presume is meant to be his mantle. In the next moment, Elijah will drop the mantle, and presumably it will float down to a waiting Elisha. 

Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost, another scriptural moment associated with the anointing of power and flame. Red is the academic color for divinity. Both associations are appropriate for this moment when God gives power and authority to a new person. 

Green is the color of ordinary time. It is associated with life and growth. These green associations are also appropriate for this story. Because following the special effects of chariot and horse, life went on. Elisha performs the mundane, ordinary task of putting on the mantle and walking back across the river. Because life goes on. In the same way, after the Transfiguration, the disciples go back down the mountain, back to the ordinariness of life without glowing Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Life goes on after the special effects. 

After Elijah disappears (after the chariot) and after Elijah disappears again (from the Transfiguration), the life-giving word of God goes on. Life.

On Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...Elijah wore green and Jesus was green. Click on the link to find out more. For thoughts on the Transfiguration B gospel passage, click here
For thoughts on Luke 9:51-62, click here.

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