Over the years, I’ve worked with many priests and families who bring their own ideas to the choice of funeral readings. I thought I would share today’s section from deep in the book of Sirach, as it seems appropriate, brief, and suitable. This selection is not in the funeral Lectionary. But I think it should be.
The sum of a person’s days is great
if it reaches a hundred years:
Like a drop of sea water,
like a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
That is why the Lord is patient with us
and showers upon us his mercy.
The Lord sees and understands
that our death is grievous,
so he forgives us all the more.
This brief passage places a human life, even a long one, in the context of a loving and eternal God. In the big picture, one life is not much. And maybe that’s a hard reality to embrace, especially if the person was well-loved. Or famous. This reading is less an ode of praise to a good person than a perspective that the reality of human life and death, next to an all-loving and eternal God, is not so much at all.
The reality is that God is fully aware of who we are, even if we have difficulty grasping the Divine.
There is a long section in Sirach (15:11-18:13) in which the philosopher expounds on human free will, and the inevitability of sin. God cares for his people, despite their wrongdoings. God forgives people, and even chooses to forgive outside the fold of believers. This is really quite an astonishing development in Jewish wisdom, even two centuries before Christ. Perhaps a brief passage can’t communicate the build-up of hundreds of words that preceded it. This is not a feel-good expression of holy mercy. This is not a blank check of mercy. It has a context with a writer, Ben Sira, who is fully cognizant of human failure and sin.
The last verse (18:10) is one of the most tender in all the Bible. God is well aware that we are attached to life, and to the lives of our loved ones. What a thought: that God will be moved by sincere human grief to forgive us so deeply. Sins pile on sins, and yet God’s heart is moved to mercy like a downpouring. I’ll tell you: I want this reading at my funeral.