SIRACH: Part 27

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Sirach 40:1-11 offers a profound reflection on anxiety and fear—the yoke weighing on humanity.  His vision reflects the view of original sin and the plight of humanity expressed in Genesis 3. Human worries and fears extend to everyone, from king to pauper: “Hard work was created for everyone, and a heavy yoke is laid on the children of Adam … Perplexities and fear of heart are theirs, and anxious thought of the day of their death. From the one who sits on a splendid throne to the one who grovels in dust and ashes … there is anger and envy and trouble and unrest, and fear of death, and fury and strife. And when one rests upon his bed, his sleep at night confuses his mind. He gets little or no rest; he struggles in his sleep…”

Chapter 42 lists various matters which bring shame. Sirach advises that one should never sin just to save face or to look good. Most of all, “Do not be ashamed of the law of the Most High and his covenant (42:2).” We should never be embarrassed about our relationship with the Lord or afraid to bear witness to him. Christ speaks of this too!

Sirach 44:1-15 praises the great ones of Israel, a poem that has entered into the Catholic Liturgy: “Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations …” Chapters 44-50 are taken up with the praise of the illustrious ones leading to Simon the high priest around 200 BC (50:1-24).  Simon died a few years before Ben Sirach wrote his book.  A high point is the description of Simon presiding at a Temple liturgy—the daily offering or the Day of Atonement. Describing the splendor of Simon the high priest, Sirach writes: “How glorious he was, surrounded by the people, as he came out of the house of the curtain. Like the morning star among the clouds…” (50:5-6).

Sirach clearly rejoiced in the splendor of the Liturgy. The curtain was probably that separating the most sacred place, the veil of the Temple torn when Christ died. The tearing of the veil at Christ’s death indicates that not only the high priest of old, but everyone who is in Christ has access to God and to holiness.

The high point is when the high priest emerged from the holy place to bless the people: “Then Simon came down and lifted up his hands over the whole congregation of Israelites, to pronounce the blessing of the Lord… and they bowed down in worship … to receive the blessing from the Most High” (50:20-21). This shows us what is going on when, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah the priest emerges to give the blessing but is unable to complete it. (He was struck dumb.) At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel the blessing remains incomplete. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself completes the blessing that was left undone. It is Jesus who replaces, fulfils, and perfects the Old Testament priesthood. Compare Luke’s account of the ascension of Jesus (into the sanctuary of heaven) with the passage quoted above: “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy…” (Luke 24:50-52).