The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Transfiguration Sunday: 2 Kings 2:1-12
Modern people of faith think of the Crusades as a time of great religious conflict, characterized by innumerable battles, massacres, and other atrocities. All of this is true, and overall the Crusades were a catastrophe whose tendrils reach down all the way to the present. One positive thing to emerge from the Crusades, however, was the hospital and its offshoot, the hospice. The Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem grew out of efforts during the First Crusade to provide care for sick and dying pilgrims, as well as a safe place for healthy travelers to stay. The Hospitallers were a Christian military order, so they also provided armed escorts for pilgrims, and they eventually developed their own army as well. The military aspects of the order disappeared with the failure of the Crusades, but the provision of care continued.
The modern hospice movement began in seventeenth century France, spreading from there to the UK, the US, and other countries. The goal of those involved in the hospice movement is to provide palliative care for those who are dying, and support for their friends and families. Hospice care involves the recognition that death is an inevitable part of life and that at a certain point, it makes sense to focus on comforting the dying rather than trying to heal them.
Today's reading from 2 Kings tells the story of a man whose life was quickly drawing to a close and the faithful servant who refused to leave his side. Elijah had a date with a fiery chariot rather than with the Grim Reaper, but his doom was just as certain as if he had been terminally ill. As his servant Elisha accompanied him on his final journey, Elijah tried to convince Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha replied, "As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." Along the way, well-meaning people, the sons of the prophets, similarly tried to convince Elisha to let Elijah go to meet God on his own. "Yes I know what's going to happen," Elisha replied. "Shut up!" And so Elisha stayed with Elijah as he crossed the Jordan River. He witnessed Elijah's final moments on earth, as he was taken into the fiery chariot that ascended to heaven. And he returned to his home alone.
Despite the narrative's portrayal of both Elijah and Elisha as prophets and men of great faith, the story suggests that both men benefited from their journey together. Elijah had someone to converse with as he faced the unknown, and Elisha was permitted to witness Elijah's translation from one sphere of existence to another. It is a privilege to accompany another person on his or her final journey, and it is often an ordeal, particularly if the comforter has known the dying patient for any length of time. Some very special people have the inner qualities necessary to provide service to the dying on a regular basis, but most of us will only have such an experience a few times in life, if at all. Many more of us, however, will find ourselves playing the role of Elijah, moving toward a certain fate without knowing the details of what lies ahead. When we do, may God grant us the grace of an Elisha to go with us down the road.