Care for people who are sick and dying has been part of Christianity from the time of Jesus. The Jewish tradition extends centuries into the past from there. The Bible has given solace and meaning to those burdened by illness or on the threshold of death. This tradition includes the wisdom that was written among the Jews of the Mediterranean diaspora of the centuries before Christ. The entirety of the 9th chapter of the book of Wisdom is based on the prayer of Solomon (1 Kgs 3:6–9; 2 Chr 1:8–10).
A brief excerpt, just three verses, is assigned to the Pastoral Care rites. Why so few from a larger composition? How would you place it: for the sick or for the dying? Let’s read:
Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
Who understands what is pleasing in your eyes
and what is conformable with your commands.
Send her forth from your holy heavens
and from your glorious throne dispatch her
That she may be with me and work with me,
that I may know what is pleasing to you.
For she knows and understands all things,
and will guide me prudently in my affairs
and safeguard me by her glory.
Solomon placed great trust in God, and according to the Bible, was granted the grace of wisdom, personified as a lady in many passages of the Old Testament. For Christians, we experience an intimacy with Jesus. We count him as understanding “all things,” in part because of his human experience among people. We look to his glory because of the witness of the apostles, especially Paul.
On the twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time a few more verses are utilized for proclamation. Would these help?
For who knows God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the Lord intends? (9:13)
When a minister accompanies a person in need, does a passage help which concedes human ignorance in the face of fate? I think I’d want to be very selective about using other verses of Wisdom 9, however true they may be in the face of our admitted mortal ignorance:
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and uncertain our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthly tent weighs down the mind with its many concerns. (9:14-15)
Can we just admit we do not know? Does it tip us into being angry with God, or a calm concession to the Almighty?
Scarcely can we guess the things on earth,
and only with difficulty grasp what is at hand;
but things in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who can know your counsel, unless you give Wisdom
and send your holy spirit from on high?
Thus were the paths of those on earth made straight,
and people learned what pleases you. (9:16-18b)
These are no less true than any other musing in this chapter. It is true that many people shrug in the face of serious illness or the advance of death upon them. At times, this can seem crucially unfair. Sometimes, it might be right to concede this truth. a Caveat: handle with care.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.