Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Book of the Church

While it goes by the name of Sirach in many Bibles, the ancient title in the Latin Church was Liber Ecclesiasticus, shortened today simply as Ecclesiasticus. It was so named because its content was used frequently for the teaching of doctrine and morals, especially for the education of catechumens. The book begins with the doctrine that there is one God, but also Wisdom and his Holy Spirit, and admonishes the soon-to-be-convert: "Never come to him with a heart that hesitates.... Submissive be thy heart, and ready to bear all.... Firm let thy feet be set on the path the Lord has chosen for thee." What better advice to give to a catechumen?

Much of the book's content is aphoristic, but much also is a series of long-form considerations on different topics: social duties, husbands and wives ("He best thrives that best wives": ch. 26), care for the poor, the choosing of friends, exhortations against sadness, and so on. All of it worthwhile advice that today's homilists would be wise to consider including in their sermons.

The mid-book monologue from Wisdom herself is famous for being the one with the most Marian imagery ("I am the mother of fair love..."). Indeed, one wishes to contrast one passage—"Eat of this fruit, and you will yet hunger for more; drink of this wine, and your thirst for it is still unquenched"—with the dominican passage in St. John's Gospel—"He who comes to me will never be hungry, he who has faith in me will never know thirst." The acquisition of wisdom leads to a desire for more wisdom, and devotion to the Theotokos leads to a desire for the God she bore.

Certain passages contradict Protestant doctrines of depravity, antinomianism, and predestination: "Do not complain that it was [God] led thee into false paths; what need has God, thinkest thou, of rebels?... Those commandments if thou wilt observe, they in their turn shall preserve thee, and give thee warrant of his favour.... A brood of disloyal sons and worthless, how should this be the Lord's desire?" (ch. 15). Luther and Calvin both would have a strong dislike for this type of wisdom.

The last five chapters or so recapitulate Hebrew history and praise holy men of years gone by: Enoch, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Phinees, Samuel, Nathan, Elias, and so on. He ends with a magnificent soliloquy about a more contemporary high priest—Simon, son of Onias. So rare is it to hear a priest praised for his holiness and good works, it is worth reproducing at some length:
A great priest was Simon, son of Onias; in his day the house of God was repaired, to make the temple strong was his life’s task. The high part of the temple, where the building was of double thickness, and the towering walls about it, he underpinned; in his day, too, the cisterns received their full flow of water, rose beyond all measuring, sea-deep. So well he cared for his fellow-citizens; no enemy should be able to compass our ruin; nor lacked he means to enlarge the city’s span. See in what state he comes out to meet the people; entrance of temple and of temple-court lifted high above him! Bright he shone as the day-star amid the clouds, as the full moon in her season; nor sun ever shed on our own temple such generous rays as he. What shall be compared with him? Rainbow that lights up the clouds with sudden glory, rose in spring-time, lilies by the water-side, scent of olibanum on the summer air? Fire that glows brightly, and glow of incense on the fire? Ornament of pure gold, set with whatever stones are rarest; olive-tree that burgeons, tall cypress pointing to the sky? Such was he when he put on his robe of office, clad himself with the full majesty of his array; sacred the garments in which he went up to the sacred altar, yet were they ennobled by the man that wore them. (ch. 50)
God send us priests worthy of such praise!

After reading this book cover-to-cover, I doubt it would be useful to simply dump it all on a catechumen and tell him to read and discuss later. Much of it is too repetitive and poorly organized for catechesis, and many of the asides are not terribly relevant (such as instructions for throwing dinner parties in ch. 32). Selections from Ecclesiasticus could be incorporated into teaching material, especially during the inevitably long discussions of moral theology. The exhortation to combat ignorance is a good one for catechumen and mentor alike: "Speak thou never against the known truth; and if thy ignorance has erred, own thy error" (ch. 4).

Finally, as in the Apocalypse, this book ends with a blessing on the reader: "Blessed is he who lingers in these pleasant haunts, and treasures the memory of them." A pleasant haunt, indeed.

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