The prophet Elijah is celebrated by members of the Carmelite Order, as well as many Eastern Christians, on July 20. It is a feast that honors the life of the Old Testament prophet and his fiery ascent into Heaven.
Elijah is revered as a saint by both Carmelites and Eastern Christians, recognizing his extraordinary holiness and faithfulness to God. Even though he lived before the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, he is still seen as a model for all Christians.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms, “The patriarchs, prophets and certain other Old Testament figures have been and always will be honored as saints in all the Church’s liturgical traditions” (CCC 61).
Carmelites in particular look to Elijah as the official founder of their order. It is believed that a group of monks lived on Mt. Carmel after the ascent of Elijah into Heaven and continued in a life of prayer after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “A notice written between 1247 and 1274 states in general terms that “from the days of Elijah and Elias the holy fathers of the Old and the New Dispensation dwelt on Mount Carmel, and that their successors after the Incarnation built there a chapel in honor of Our Lady, for which reason they were called in papal Bulls ‘Friars of Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel.'”
It is even claimed by some that the spiritual descendants of Elijah were among the first followers of Jesus.
Eastern Christians in the Byzantine tradition have shared a similar veneration of Elijah, looking to him as the, “Holy, Glorious Prophet Elijah.” Many leaders in the East built churches in honor of Elijah, such as the St. Elijah Church in Kyiv and the Church of Prophet Elijah in Thessaloniki, Greece.
The date of July 20 is an ancient commemoration, though the exact details surrounding this day are difficult to pinpoint. It may have been selected because of its position outside of the Lenten and Easter season, and is generally viewed as the date of Elijah’s ascent into Heaven on a fiery chariot (see 2 Kings 2:1-18).