Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Every Age, O LORD, You Have Been Our Refuge

Saturday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ecclesiastes 11:9--12:8
Rejoice, O young man, while you are young
and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart,
the vision of your eyes;
Yet understand that as regards all this
God will bring you to judgment.
Ward off grief from your heart
and put away trouble from your presence,
though the dawn of youth is fleeting.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come
And the years approach of which you will say,
I have no pleasure in them;
Before the sun is darkened,
and the light, and the moon, and the stars,
while the clouds return after the rain;
When the guardians of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
And the grinders are idle because they are few,
and they who look through the windows grow blind;
When the doors to the street are shut,
and the sound of the mill is low;
When one waits for the chirp of a bird,
but all the daughters of song are suppressed;
And one fears heights,
and perils in the street;
When the almond tree blooms,
and the locust grows sluggish
and the caper berry is without effect,
Because man goes to his lasting home,
and mourners go about the streets;
Before the silver cord is snapped
and the golden bowl is broken,
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the broken pulley falls into the well,
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
all things are vanity!
Today we come to the end of our selections from this book. Even in translation one can see the poetry of the passage. Again it can be read in a very pessimistic way or with a sense of realism.

The reading deals with the inevitability of old age and what it brings.

In Jewish tradition, going back to the book of Deuteronomy, long life was seen as a reward promised by God and the greatest blessing given to those who had led good lives. However, for Qoheleth, old age is not happiness but the fear of death, regrets for one’s younger days, the slowing-down of life, and a painful slowing down “before the dust returns to the earth”.

So he begins by urging the young to enjoy their lives while they still have the energy and vigour to do so. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!” They should follow the promptings of their hearts and the desires of their eyes but with the caveat that some day they will have to give an account to God of their actions.

There seems to be a mixed signal when he tells them to “cast worry from your heart, shield your flesh from pain” because youth is but a “dawn” and it will not last long. For such a carefree and hedonistic life is in fact highly deceptive. For “youth, the age of dark hair, is vanity”. The wise young person will be mindful of the Creator while there is still time.

For the days are coming when life will give little pleasure and a kind of darkness (occasioned by weakening sight and cataracts?!), when sun and light and moon and stars grow dim and the clouds return after the rain.

There follows then a sad but moving description of old age

when strong men become bowed down,
when women can no longer grind corn,
when (through hardness of hearing?) so many sounds are no longer heard -

     the sound of the mill,
     the singing of the birds,
     the sound of music -

and when walking uphill becomes a dreaded ordeal.

Yet, while all that is happening, life continues with never-ending normality:

     the blossoms come out on the almond tree
     the grasshopper is heavy with food,
     the trees bear their fruit,

but we move inexorably towards our “everlasting home” in the bosom of the earth.

Already the mourners are getting ready to see us off, awaiting the moment “before the silver cord has snapped, or the golden lamp has been broken, or the pitcher shattered at the spring, or the pulley cracked at the well, or before the dust returns to the earth as it once came from it, and the breath of God who gave it” - all poetic ways of describing the ultimate return to the earth of the dust from which we came.

Finally, the Teacher closes his message using the same words with which he opened his book: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”

Yet, as the Jerusalem Bible comments, while the book ends with the same words with which it began, in between it has covered much ground. It reminds us of our wretchedness and powerlessness but also of our greatness, by showing us that there is something greater beyond the world in which we live. It points us in the direction of the God who is above and beyond all that we can experience. “It incites the reader to disinterested religion and to that kind of prayer in which a creature, aware of its nothingness, adores the mystery of God”.

Vanity, or meaninglessness, is not the last word.

It is possible to feel depressed on reading this book but that is not its ultimate purpose and certainly not the intention of those who chose these readings for the liturgy.

Underneath the apparent negativity and cynicism is the deep truth of the transitoriness and fragility of all existence and the importance of our using well the time - long or short - that has been given to us and, through the joys and pains that make up every life, finding God’s love and compassion there. Life is to be enjoyed but with the realisation that, on this earth, it has a very definite end for each individual.

Underneath it all, one is reminded of the great ‘Contemplation to Attain the Love of God’ which concludes the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. In four steps, the one doing the Exercises is urged to be aware of:

     1. the blessings of creation and redemption with which one is surrounded;
     2. how God is present in every level of creation, bringing it to its destined fulfilment;
     3. how God works for me through every created thing, including his Son Jesus Christ;
     4. how reflection and contemplation on all of this brings me to the very Source of everything.
         "In him, we live, and move, and have our very being” (Acts 17:28)

To be united with that Source is my final Destiny and I can say with Paul:

     “For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
      nor angels, nor rulers,
      nor things present, nor things to come,
      nor height, nor depth,
      nor anything else in all creation,
      will be able to separate us from the love of God
      in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).*
+++    +++   +++    +++
Psalm 90
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You turn man back to dust,
saying, "Return, O children of men."
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:43b-45
While they were all amazed at his every deed,
Jesus said to his disciples,
"Pay attention to what I am telling you.
The Son of Man is to be handed over to men."
But they did not understand this saying;
its meaning was hidden from them
so that they should not understand it,
and they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
After yesterday’s reading where the disciples recognised their Master as the Messiah and are told about the death and resurrection of Jesus, there follows the scene with the three chosen apostles on the mountain where they get a glimpse of Jesus in glory (the transfiguration). This is followed by the healing of the epileptic boy.

The reaction of the crowds to this cure was that “they were all amazed at the mighty power of God”. Not, we might note, the mighty power of Jesus. Even the crowds could recognise the real source of what Jesus was doing.

It is at this high point of Jesus’ popularity that he says just to his disciples, “Let all this sink into your ears, for the Son of man will be handed over into the hands of men.” What Jesus seems to be saying is that they are to realise there is no contradiction whatever between Jesus revealing in himself the unlimited power of God and his being handed over powerless to the power of his enemies. Only when they can see and understand the meaning of a suffering Messiah will they fully know the Way of Jesus.

But, Luke tells us, they were not ready yet for this. “They did not understand what Jesus was saying. It was hidden from them and they could not see it.” At the same time they were afraid to ask him.

To what extent can we say that we understand and accept the idea of a suffering Messiah? We are used to looking at the cross of Jesus but to what degree do we see the place of suffering in our own lives? Can we see that, without pain and suffering in our own lives and in those of others, our lives would be in many ways impoverished? Strange as it may seem, it is pain and suffering that can bring out what is most deeply human in all of us.

The Irish Jesuits

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