The Book of Tobit is useful and under-utilized

Earlier, I wrote that I am in the process of putting together the liturgy for my brother’s funeral.

That’s not just a hard sentence to write, it is a difficult task to set oneself to. It requires a willingness to say, “yes, I suppose this must be done, and better to do it now, when I am thinking clearly…” when one really doesn’t yet want to…quite…believe that the end is near.

Choosing from an approved list of prayers used throughout the Mass of Christian Burial is not difficult, even choosing hymns is not hard. Most families have a few favorites that are sure to bring comfort to the bereaved, and – being favorites – those songs might even be singable through the tears.

What is difficult is deciding upon the scriptural readings, and it’s difficult because of love.

If I did not love S and his parents and brothers, aunts and uncles, it would be a simple thing to pick a text, but because of love, because of sensitivity to life-circumstances, to good and bad times in the past, I get a little stymied. If I we use this text, will it bring up that old memory?

I’ve been looking through scripture for days, asking the Holy Spirit to guide me in finding the right readings for this family. I read about God promising Noah the bow in the sky and it did not move me. I read about David learning of the death of his son, Absalom and crying out, “My son! My son!” and realized quickly that it would be a most cruel reading to submit to my family, as just reading it in silence had me bawling. (As an aside, Eric Whitacre has written a stunningly gorgeous piece of choral music based upon this text, When David Heard which tingles the spine and raises the hair on one’s arms, although it would take quite a good church choir to pull it off.)

I ended up at the book of Tobit, which has long been a favorite of mine, although I don’t know many people who have read it. I’ve used it personally when I’ve felt particularly alone or suffered through a bit of acedia, as it is a book that brings much hope. I like it because the people within it are ordinary. They are standard-issue people who do kind, thoughtful things, without seeking glory, or who grieve and wonder why they should go on living, or who celebrate the marriage of their children with happiness, even as they acknowledge some sadness at the transitions of life. Just like us, just like real life.

The archangel Raphael figures prominently in the book, too, as he provides safe passage for someone and also gives a bit of advice regarding healing and the uses of what is created to bring about healing. (I took a course in Chinese Medicine once, and the instructor made a point of mentioning that Raphael’s remedy for blindness is a repectable one in that discipline – and why not? Our Lord used the humblest of things, mud and spittle, to heal!)

But what I like most about the book of Tobit is the humanity of the parents. In two passages in particular, I identify keenly with the protective anxiety of Tobit and his wife, Anna, and I suspect most parents would.

The first is the wedding of Tobiah (Tobit’s son) to Sarah. Chapter 10:11-13

Raguel then promptly handed over to Tobiah Sarah his wife, together with half of all his property: male and female slaves, oxen and sheep, asses and camels, clothing, money, and household goods. 11 Bidding them farewell, he let them go. He embraced Tobiah and said to him: “Good-bye, my son. Have a safe journey. May the Lord of heaven grant prosperity to you and to your wife Sarah. And may I see children of yours before I die!” 12 Then he kissed his daughter Sarah and said to her: “My daughter, honor your father-in-law and your mother-in-law, because from now on they are as much your parents as the ones who brought you into the world. Go in peace, my daughter; let me hear good reports about you as long as I live.” Finally he said good-bye to them and sent them away. 13 Then Edna said to Tobiah: “My child and beloved kinsman, may the Lord bring you back safely, and may I live long enough to see children of you and of my daughter Sarah before I die. Before the Lord, I entrust my daughter to your care. Never cause her grief at any time in your life. Go in peace, my child. From now on I am your mother, and Sarah is your beloved. May all of us be prosperous all the days of our lives.” She kissed them both and sent them away in peace.

A wonderful reading for a good-natured wedding, don’t you think – when a bit of instruction on “blending” families would be welcome?

And then there is this: Chapter 5:17-23

(Tobit) called his son and said to him: “My son, prepare whatever you need for the journey, and set out with your kinsman. May God in heaven protect you on the way and bring you back to me safe and sound; and may his angel accompany you for safety, my son.” Before setting out on his journey, Tobiah kissed his father and mother. Tobit said to him, “Have a safe journey.” 18 But his mother began to weep. She said to Tobit: “Why have you decided to send my child away? Is he not the staff to which we cling, ever there with us in all that we do? 19 I hope more money is not your chief concern! Rather let it be a ransom for our son! 20 What the Lord has given us to live on is certainly enough for us.” 21 Tobit reassured her: “Have no such thought. Our son will leave in good health and come back to us in good health. Your own eyes will see the day when he returns to you safe and sound. 22 So, no such thought; do not worry about them, my love. For a good angel will go with him, his journey will be successful, and he will return unharmed.” Then she stopped weeping.

I can think of so many times this reading would be helpful: when your child is leaving for school, or the military, when she is ill or undergoing surgery…or…when a child has died and you need to remember that you will see him again, and that he is not alone, but in the company of angels.

Tobit is a useful book, full of humanity, faith, miracles and hope. Read it when you get a chance.

About Elizabeth Scalia

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