Whenever I visited my Nana as a child, I always looked in a kind of frightened fascination at a picture she kept on her bedside table: a portrait of her husband, James. A successful businessman and rising star in state politics, he gazed solemnly at the camera, his blue eyes somehow seeing through time to a little girl who never had a chance to meet him, since he died quite suddenly when his own daughter, my mother, was just eight years old.
Although he lived to see his children bear their own children, my paternal grandfather, Thomas, also passed away before I could come to know him. A burly union organizer for Pennsylvania coal miners, he suffered a massive heart attack when I was only two years old.
I loved my two grandmothers dearly, but I always mourned the lack of those grandfathers, and perhaps that’s why I was drawn to such figures in books and films. I smiled whenever the character Grandpa appeared on screen in the 1970s television series “The Waltons” (and no snarky comments about my age, please). I can’t count the number of times I watched the movie “Heidi” (the original 1937 version with Shirley Temple; see previous warning about mocking my seniority). And I probably read more frequently still Swiss author Joanna Spyri’s original tale about the child who wins the heart of her solitary Alpine grandfather.
But in recent years I’ve found someone who has in many ways been the grandfather I never had: Yeshua (Jesus) Ben Sira, author of the deuterocanonical book The Wisdom of Ben Sira, also known as Sirach or Liber Ecclesiasticus (“church book,” and not to be confused with the Book of Ecclesiastes).
Written in Hebrew around 175 B.C., the text is a spiritual treasure, rich in wisdom and insight on a range of subjects such as individual conduct, relationships with family and friends, wealth, poverty, justice and divine worship.
In what is surely a most unsystematic approach to Scripture study, I’ve found myself flipping through the book at random, seeking verses like a child rummaging through her grandfather’s toolbox.
When an abortion clinic worker vehemently cursed me while I was covering a pro-life rally, Sirach had practical words of solace: “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. … Accept whatever happens to you; in periods of humiliation be patient. For in fire gold is tested …” (Sir 2:1,4,5).
When I myself had a problem with cursing, Sirach admonished me sternly: “Those who swear many oaths heap up offenses; and the scourge will never be far from their houses. … Do not accustom your mouth to coarse talk, for it involves sinful speech. … Those accustomed to using abusive language will never acquire discipline as long as they live” (Sir 23:11, 13, 15).
Sirach has also given sound financial counsel that has prevented me from depleting my checking account via Amazon: “Life’s prime needs are water, bread, and clothing, and also a house for decent privacy. … Whether little or much, be content with what you have, then you will hear no reproach as a parasite. … (or) insults from creditors” (Sir 29:21, 23, 28).
He has even made me laugh with his directness: “Limit the time you spend among the stupid,” he advises, “but frequent the company of the thoughtful” (Sir 27:12).
Sirach himself learned from “the law, the prophets, and the rest of the books of our ancestors” (Sir, Foreword) — and we know that thanks to his own grandson, who translated the Hebrew text into Greek sometime after 117 B.C., working from his home in Egypt “for many sleepless hours to complete the book and publish it for those … who wish to acquire learning and are disposed to live their lives according to the Law” (Sir, Foreword).
As we celebrate the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, then, may we honor our elders — from Sirach to PopPop to Opa to Abuelo — and hear in their words the voice of the divine echoing through the generations, so that we might “bless the God of all, who has done wonders on the earth; who fosters growth from the womb, fashioning it according to his will” (Sir 51:22).
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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