In the ninth century before Christ lived the most holy and pious Elias of Thisbe or Thesbe, a town of Gilead, beyond the Jordan. We know from Scripture that he was of priestly lineage, a man of a solitary and ascetical character, clothed in a mantle of sheepskin, and girded about his loins with a leathern belt. His zeal for the glory of God was compared to fire, and his speech for teaching and rebuke was likened unto a burning lamp. From this too he received the name Zealot. Therefore, set aflame with such zeal, he:
- Reproved the impiety and lawlessness of Ahab and his wife Jezebel.
- Shut up heaven by means of prayer so that it did not rain for three years and six months.
- Multiplied the little flour and oil of the poor widow who had given him hospitality in her home and raised up her son when he died.
- Brought down fire from Heaven upon Mount Carmel which burned up the sacrifice offered to God before all the people of Israel, that they might know the truth.
- Slew 450 false prophets and priests who worshipped idols and led the people astray.
- Received food wondrously at the hand of an Angel.
- Beheld God on Mount Horeb, as far as this is possible for human nature.
- Divided the flow of the Jordan so that he and his disciple could pass through as it were dry land.
- And, ascended alive into heaven on a fiery chariot.
Similarly, in the New Testament, we encounter another who bears the title of “zealot” – Simon the Apostle. Bishop Nikolai of blessed memory writes in the Prologue: “Simon was called the Zealot because of his great and fiery zeal for the Savior and His Gospel.” One of the Twelve Great Apostles, Simon was born in Cana of Galilee and was the groom at the wedding of Cana detailed by the Evangelist John. Witnessing the miracle of the Lord changing water into wine when the wine gave out, Simon left his home, parents and bride and followed after Christ. “After receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, Simon went to preach the Gospel…in Africa. Because he succeeded to convert many to the Faith of Christ, Simon was tortured and finally crucified, as was his Lord, Who prepared for him a wreath of glory in the immortal kingdom.” It is for this reason that we chant on May tenth, his feast day:
O glorious Simon, when God Incarnate revealed Himself to you, you were kindled with divine zeal. You were a zealot among the Apostles and eager to emulate Christ’s death. You did go forth to Him by crucifixion. Entreat Him to grant us His great mercy.
St. Theophan the Recluse once wrote:
There is a moment, and a very noticeable moment, which is sharply marked out in the course of our life, when a person begins to live in a Christian way. This is the moment when there began to be present in him the distinctive characteristics of Christian life. Christian life is zeal and the strength to remain in communion with God by means of an active fulfillment of His holy will, according to our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the help of the grace of God, to the glory of His most holy name.
Calling to mind the zeal for God as manifested in the likes of Holy Prophet Elias and the Holy Apostle Simon, we can surmise with regards to our lives in Christ as did St. Theophan the Recluse:
“Without zeal a Christian is a poor Christian. He is drowsy, feeble, lifeless, neither hot nor cold – and this kind of life is not life at all. Knowing this, let us strive to manifest ourselves as true zealots of good deeds, so that we might truly be pleasing to God, having neither stain nor spot, nor any of these things.
Archbishop Averky of the Russian Orthodox Church reaches a similar conclusion:
“The chief thing in Christianity, according to the clear teaching of the Word of God, is the fire of divine zeal, zeal for God and His glory, the holy zeal which alone is able to inspire man in labors and struggles pleasing to God, and without which there is no authentic spiritual life and there is not and cannot be any true Christianity. Without this holy zeal Christians are ‘Christians’ in name only.”
If we desire to be considered Christians, not in name, but by activity, we are then to possess zeal for our Faith. Like St. Nicholas the Wonderworker who Bishop Nikolai elevates as possessing “…three sorts of praiseworthy zeal: zeal in cleansing oneself from sinful desires and thoughts, zeal for the truth of the Faith, and zeal for God’s justice among men,” we develop a zeal for piety. When combined with love, our zeal is well pleasing to God, to paraphrase St. John of Damascus.
How can I do this in my vocation? St. Theophan directs us to the everyday examples of the merchant, the soldier, the judge, and the scholar. Each has work that is full of cares and difficulties. He asks:
How do they sustain themselves in the midst of their labors? [The Answer] By enthusiasm and love for their work. One cannot sustain oneself by anything else on the path of piety. Without this we will be serving God in a state of sluggishness, boredom, and lack of interest. An animal like the sloth also moves, but with difficulty, while for the swift gazelle or the nimble squirrel movement and getting about is a delight. Zealous pleasing of God is the path to God, which is full of consolation and gives wings to the spirit. Without it one can ruin everything.
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, with whose words I conclude, offers us another thought on being zealous. Regardless of our vocation, he suggests in his writing “On True Zeal” that our zeal for God be characterized by our love for our neighbor:
If you want to be a true, zealous son [or daughter] of the Orthodox Church, you can do so by the fulfillment of the commandments of the Gospel in regard to your neighbor. Do not dare to convict him. Do not dare to teach him. Do not dare to condemn or reproach him. To correct your neighbor in this way is not an act of faith, but of foolish zeal, self-opinion and pride. Saint Poemen the Great was asked, ‘What is faith?’ The great man replied that faith consists in remaining in humility and showing mercy; that is to say, in humbling oneself before one’s neighbors and forgiving them all discourtesies and offences, all their sins. As foolish zealots make out that faith is the prime cause of their zeal, let them know that true faith, and consequently also true zeal, must express themselves in humility regarding our neighbors and in mercy towards them. Let us leave the work of judging and convicting people to those persons on whose shoulders is laid the duty of judging and ruling their brethren. ‘He who is moved by false zeal,’ says Saint Isaac the Syrian, ‘is suffering from a severe illness. O man, you who think to use your zeal against the infirmities of others, you have renounced the health of your own soul! You had better bestow your care on the healing of yourself, and if you want to heal the sick, know that the sick need nursing, rather than reprimand. But you, instead of helping others, cast yourself into the same painful illness. This zeal is not counted among men as a form of wisdom, but is one of the diseases of the soul, and as a sign of narrow-mindedness and extreme arrogance. The beginning of divine wisdom is quietness and meekness, which is the basic state of mind proper to great and strong souls and which bears human weaknesses. Ye that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak (Rom. 15:1), says Scripture. And again: Restore a sinner in the spirit of meekness and gentleness (see Gal.6:1). The Apostle counts peace and patience (Gal. 5:22) among the fruits of the Holy Spirit.