Elisha with the Shunnamite Woman (Gerbrand von de Eeckhout, 1649)
Unless we pay close attention to the Scriptures, we can confuse Elijah and his disciple Elisha, or think that the latter was somehow less important than his teacher.
In a careful reading of the Book of Kings, John Henry Newman noted that both prophets share many traits: both worked miracles; withstood kings; both manifested God’s mercy to pagans; both lived in the same land and time, and they both witnessed against idolatry.
Despite their similarities, Newman distinguishes the character and works of each. Whereas Elijah was an ascetic who lived a solitary life, a great reformer of Israel, avenging God for idolatry with the sword, Elisha “lived in the world, mixed with all classes of people, had greater political influence (as we now call it), and the higher invisible gifts.”
Although all the prophets are types of Christ, Newman suggests that Elisha is more a type of Christ than Elijah who is more a type of St. John the Baptist even though unlike the Baptist, Elijah performed miracles.
Newman explains: “I think we may say that, as Elijah represents the Baptist, Christ’s forerunner, so Elisha prefigures Christ’s successors, His servants which come after Him and inherit His gifts; Christ Himself being exactly represented by neither, coming between them, or (if at all) represented by both at once, when the one was departing, and the other taking his place.”
For Newman, Elisha is more like a type of Christ’s “favored and special servants” in which he includes not only bishops but those ascetics, founders of orders, doctors and others who have special marks of holiness. He identifies, among others, the following points of resemblance of Elisha with the lives of saints:
- Like Elisha who received a double portion of the Spirit of Elijah, the saints received the Holy Spirit at the waters of the Jordan.
- Christ’s servants are aware of the great communion of saints. This is exemplified in the life of Elisha. On finding himself surrounded by a Syrian army, his servant asked what they should do. Elisha answered, “Fear not, for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” [2 Kings vi. 15-17.
- The saints have the gift of discerning spirits. Such was the case with Elisha who was able to reveal to the King of Israel the plans of the King of Syria, and when he foretold the evil Hazael, future King of Syria would do to Israel.
- The prophet Elisha also had power of inflicting spiritual censures and punishments as when he blinded some Syrians (2 Kings vi. 18.) or foretold the death of a ruler who scoffed at a prophecy (2 Kings vii. 2.)
- Elisha was gifted with an extraordinary sanctity that a touch of his relics raised a person who had died….. Such miracles occurred when St. Peter’s shadow fell on some who were sick and others were touched by a handkerchief used by St. Paul.
- The miracles worked by Elisha point to the sacraments, for instance the cleansing of Naaman suggests baptism, and the multiplication of loaves is a reference to the Holy Eucharist.
- Elisha spoke with authority to men and women, high and low, for example the Shunammite woman and Naaman, the minister of the Syrian King.
In this sermon, Newman does not give examples from the lives of saints except for SS Peter and Paul, but in modern times we know of how St. John Vianney multiplied the flour to feed the children of the parish school; St. John Bosco foretold the death of many, and St. Padre Pio could read the thoughts of many who came to confession.
Newman draws the conclusion that God’s almighty power accompanies the Church, and much lies beneath the appearance of what is visible. He writes:
“If Elisha be in spirit still among us, I mean, if the Church of Christ, viewed in her rulers, her confessors, her ascetics, and her doctors, be represented in the prophetic writings, such as Elisha is described in the history of Israel, how much have we to learn before we gain a clear and simple view of its real character! What a veil is on the eyes of men who treat it as a mere institution of this world!”
In God’s Church there is more than meets the eye. God raises saints to teach, correct and guide, and through whom He also continues to work miracles. The saints, like the prophet Elisha, are types of Christ, and they remind us of the supernatural aspect of the Church which lies beneath the surface of things. They invite us to greater faith in God and his action in the Church and the world.