The elderly: respected and valued by God
By Bishop Arthur Serratelli
Each year, Christmas gives the biggest economic boost to our economy. To celebrate the day, more than 86 percent of Americans purchase gifts for family members and friends. Holiday sales exceed one trillion dollars. However, the big winners in this frantic holiday spending spree are our young people. On average, most children receive anywhere from three to eight gifts and sometimes even many more. We are a society preoccupied with youth.
Entertainment, fashions, and fast food industries cater to the taste of the young. Commercials capitalize on looking young to sell their products. Our culture projects the illusion that life ends before 40. With such great emphasis on youthfulness, it makes aging undesirable and something to be disguised.
In the past half-century, thanks to the progress of medicine, lifespans have increased. The average life expectancy is 78 years old. In the next twenty-five years, the elderly population will increase by nearly 80 percent.
As the traditional extended family vanishes, the elderly among us are increasingly seen as a burden and not a blessing.
“In the West, scientists present the current century as the aging century: children are diminishing, the elderly are increasing,” said Pope Francis during a general audience in 2015.
“This imbalance challenges us, indeed, it is a great challenge for contemporary society. Yet a culture of profit insists on casting off the old like a weight.”
A quick glance at the Christmas crèche could lead someone to think that Christmas was simply about young people. Mary, a teenage mother. Her young husband Joseph. And, a newborn baby. Eternally youthful angels. But, a reading of the entire Christmas narrative shows how important the elderly were for the birth of Jesus. Luke sets the stage for the birth of Jesus by centering our attention on Zechariah and Elizabeth, a pious couple related to Mary and well on in years.
God likes to call the elderly in service to his work of salvation. Moses was 80 and his brother Aaron was 83 when called to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. In fact, when God wanted to form the Chosen People, he began with an elderly couple. He called Abraham who was close to 100 and his wife Sarah who was 90.
Not only were Abraham and Sarah on in years, they were also childless. Yet, God promised Abraham that Sarah would conceive and bear a son and Abraham would become the father of many nations. God intervened; Isaac was born, and there began the generations of faith that led to the covenant with God on
Sinai. Thus, from the loins of Abraham, the aged patriarch, and his barren wife, there sprung hope for salvation.
St. Luke deliberately begins the Christmas narrative not with Mary and Joseph, but with Zechariah and Elizabeth. They embodied the piety of Israel. They were righteous and kept the laws of the covenant, living in expectation of the coming of the Messiah. And, just like Abraham and Sarah when God offered them a most important role in the drama of salvation, Zechariah and Elizabeth were also elderly and without child.
Fifteen months before the birth of Jesus, Zechariah, a descendant of Aaron, went to the temple to carry out his priestly duties. In his day, there were about 7,000 priests serving in the temple. Zechariah was chosen by lot one morning to offer incense. A coveted privilege. As Zechariah entered the sanctuary of the Temple to perform his duty, he was well aware that this was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for him. His turn had come and he would no longer be involved in the drawing of lots for this office.
At the time of the incense offering, the entire Temple hushed into silence. In the outer courts, the devout bowed in prayer while others outside of Jerusalem gathered in their synagogues to pray. When Zechariah took the incense made from 11 different spices and flung it on the fire, he held close in his heart his own prayer for a child. The sweet-smelling smoke immediately enveloped the Holy Place. Suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared standing at the right side of the altar. Even more startling than the sight of the angel was the angel’s message. Gabriel told the old man that his prayer for a son was answered. Elizabeth would bear a son.
Gabriel informed Zechariah that his son would be no ordinary child. Like the judge Samson and the prophet Samuel, he was consecrated even before his birth for an extraordinary mission. The angel even gave Zechariah the name “John” for the child. This name means “God is gracious.” Certainly, in giving Zechariah and Elizabeth a child in their old age, God was truly gracious. But, more than that, John’s very name announces the new dispensation of grace to be inaugurated with the birth of Jesus.
In both Old and New Testament times, God chose the elderly to usher in something new and extraordinary. In Abraham and Sarah, in Zechariah and Elizabeth, age only served to highlight the miraculous. God overcame the barrenness of the women and the agedness of their husbands. God did not discard their wisdom that came with age nor their faith that had been tested and proved. He valued their virtue and their hope.
Like the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah and like the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the elderly today are a link to the past and the bridge to the future. They are the depositories of great wisdom and faith. The elderly “represent the roots and the memory of a people. … [Their] maturity and wisdom, accumulated over the years, can help younger people in search of their own way, supporting them on the path of growth and openness to the future. The elderly, in fact, show that, even in the most difficult trials, we must never lose confidence in God and in a better future” (Pope Francis, Address to Grandparents, October 15, 2016).
The genuineness of our society will always be judged by the way in which we respect and honor our elderly. God does not cast them aside. In fact, he has given them most important roles in the life of faith and in his plan for salvation. He respects and values the elderly. How can we do less?
Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.