‘Old’ is never too old in God’s plan of salvation

By | November 27, 2012

As we approach the end of the church year, with the feast of Christ the King on Nov. 24, it’s not unusual to think about the later days of life. The average life expectancy in the United States is about 78 years. In ancient Rome, life expectancy at birth was about 30 years. Infant/childhood mortality was nearly 50 percent, so if a citizen of Rome made it to age 15, he could expect to live to his early 50s.

But reaching age 78, or even 55, could seem like April when we look at the patriarchs of the Bible.

For example, Genesis tells us that Adam lived to be 930 years old (5:5); his son, Seth, to age 912 (5:8); and the granddaddy of all was Methuselah — whose very name connotes old age — reached 969 (5:27).

Now questions arise about these immense ages. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that many ancient societies, including Egypt, assigned long lives to their famous ancestors — sort of mythic longevity. Then there is the possibility that age was accounted differently in Genesis, with years really meaning months, or a patriarch’s age totaling his own age plus that of his sons. There is also the literal interpretation — maybe they really did live that long.

The Roman-Jewish first century historian, Falvius Josephus, addressing this question, said, “Let no one make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that none of the patriarchs attained so long a duration of life; for those ancients were beloved of God …”

But things changed after the flood. Genesis notes that Noah was 950 years and lived for 350 years after the Flood (9:28-29). Ages decreased after that, which seems tied to Noah and God’s plan for humankind. Genesis’ fifth chapter tells about the children of Adam and Eve up to Noah. Chapter six speaks of the sins of humanity leading to the flood and God seems to decide to shorten lifespans afterwards.

“Then the Lord said: “My spirit shall not remain in man forever, since he is but flesh. His days shall comprise 120 years” (Gn 6:3).

Now this doesn’t seem to have happened immediately because Noah’s eldest son — Shem — lived to be 600 (Gn 11:11). Still that was a lot less than his dad.

And ages kept decreasing. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah, we find them living to 175 and 127, respectively. And Moses seems to show what God planned for humankind because he died at exactly age 120 (Dt 34:7).

By the time of David and the Psalms — about 1,000 years before the time of Christ — Psalm 90 (attributed to Moses) tells us that “Seventy is the sum of our years, or 80, if we are strong; most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone.”

Today, we are still about at that “three score and 10” of the poetic King James version — 80 if we are strong. However, many are living much longer and the number of centenarians is increasing.

In 1998, the Vatican’s Council on the Laity issued a document on the dignity and mission of “older people” in both the church and the world.

“The term ‘third age’ now embraces a large segment of the world’s population: people who have retired from active employment, yet who still have great inner resources and are still able to contribute to the common good,” the council, headed by Cardinal James Stafford, wrote. “To this huge throng of ‘young old’ (… i.e. those aged between 65 and 70) is added a so-called fourth age, that of the ‘oldest old’ (those over 75)…”

The document, written for the United Nations’ 1999 Year of the Elderly, noted that growing old is experienced by many, but differs for each: “Only in the light of the faith, strengthened by the hope which does not deceive (cf. Rom 5:5), shall we be able to accept old age in a truly Christian way both as a gift and a task. That is the secret of the youthfulness of spirit, which we can continue to cultivate in spite of the passing of years.”

Youthfulness of spirit is something about which the biblical accounts of our long-lived ancestors most seems to speak: Noah building an ark when he was 500 years old; Sarah giving birth to Isaac at 90 (Gn 17:17) and Moses leading the Hebrews into the desert at age 80 (Ex 7:7). Maybe it is as the book of Proverbs says: “Gray hair is a glorious crown; it is found in the way of righteousness” (16:31).

In 1987, the late Bishop Aloysius Wycislo (who lived to 97 himself), gave a day of recollection on “Authentic Spirituality in the Harvest Years of Life.” He mentioned Sarah, Elizabeth and Zachary, Anne and Joachim, and even St. Joseph as examples of fruitful older people. He also noted that many “Fathers of the Church” were old, and the apostles themselves were “a mixture of young and old.” “So,” the bishop concluded, “it seems to me that Christian civilization itself was born and the new world was begotten of the aged.”

As we approach the end of the church year and the “days dwindle down,” we should remember the gifts of our “aged” ancestors. God promises to “pour out my spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions …” (Jl 3:1). It seems that, no matter the season or our personal chronology, there is always a role to play in God’s work.

Sources: The Vatican website at vatican.va; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Authentic Spirituality”; and biblestudy.org.


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