Old things can last a very long time. Take for example that door pictured above, one of the back doors into the cloister of Durham Cathedral. It’s got a Norman arch that dates back to the 11th century A.D. That’s pretty remarkable longevity. There are of course people that live a long time in this world. I had two great uncles who lived to 102. That’s remarkable by modern standards. So youth oriented is our culture that we have invented words like youth and youthful, but have you noticed there is no word oldth or oldthful? Our culture does not revere the elderly. How does one grow old gracefully in an environment that wants to turn the camera away from the elderly and their issues and lives?
I was reflecting on a remarkable passage from Ecclesiastes 12 which I will reproduce here—-
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
What is most remarkable about this passage is that it takes the perspective of how an older person sees the world. So for example, it’s not really the sun going dark, it just appears that way to an elderly person who is losing their sight. Or in vs. 3 the ‘keepers of the house’ are of course the hands which care for one’s mortal frame, called here, the house. It then speaks of stooped posture of the elderly, and how one’s teeth, what’s left of them, don’t chew and grind like they used to do. Then the paradox is mention of how the elderly often have trouble sleeping, and the least little thing can wake them, even though strangely, they can’t hear as well as they used to do. Of course it is the elderly, when they become feeble, that become afraid of heights, and are more worried about danger in the streets outside their homes. The almond tree, with its white blooms is a symbol of the white hair of the elderly. The metaphor of the grasshopper produces a smile– the author is probably talking about the penus, which no longer gets excited any more, drags itself along, because desire has diminished or even disappeared. And when all that happens, finally one goes to one’s eternal home, and they have the funeral. In a final burst of telling metaphors the sage reminds that we must remember God before the cord of life is severed, or the golden bowl which holds our lives is shattered. The image of things cut, or broken, or shattered are all images of the ravages of time at the end of life and what happens to the body. The body becomes a mere physical object, a corpse, not a person, for the spirit has returned to God our Maker.
This all too realistic and poignant description of old age is one that believers should reflect on long and hard. For one thing, it helps us avoid the sort of mythology our culture would like to perpetuate namely that regardless of what life one has lived, everybody will go to heaven. No, says the sage, you need to remember your Maker in the days of your youth on through old age, and not forget to praise and be thankful to your Maker all the days of your life. What is assumed is an ongoing relationship with God, that causes a change in how one views the end of life.
Of course the author of Ecclesiastes is not offering us a full Christian description of how we should view old age and death, but it does provide some clues about growing old graciously. The larger context urges that: 1) we should do the good work given us by God while we have time and opportunity to do so; 2) it urges that we enjoy eating, and drinking, and fellowshipping and loving one another while we can; 3)it urges us to avoid the traps of materialism, and wasting our lives pursuing more and more wealth, which as the author says is a meaningless and empty pursuit; 4) it urges us to ‘seize the day’ to take advantage of all our opportunities in life, and not let them slip away. We are to ‘do all the good we can, in every way we can, to as many people as we can, for as long as we can’.
As I look forward someday to meeting my Maker, increasingly the one thing I hope to hear from Him is— ‘well done good and faithful servant, inherit the Kingdom’. We are to live a life, even when we are old, that leaves us without many regrets, and with a wrinkled smile on our faces.