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In the Western world, the culture of “disposability” and “profitability” leads us to believe that old age is a period of dependence and incapacity. A person’s value is determined by how well they perform in society. In contrast, biblical wisdom honors the elderly. While the world claims that old age is an enemy to be fought, the Bible reveals the opposite. Psalm 92:14 says of the righteous: “In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.”
There are stereotypes of older people, some positive and others less so: some describe the elderly as complaining, domineering, and prone to criticism, making everyone want to avoid them. Others, on the other hand, appear as blessings to their family, their circle of friends, and their parish. What do they have that others do not? How can we grow old gracefully, according to God’s plan? The Bible includes texts and models of older people who are flourishing in their faith that show us some paths for flourishing with grace.
1Believing firmly that our final destination is to be in heaven with God
What we believe about our final destination shapes our character and our daily existence. Luke’s Gospel highlights the 84-year-old prophetess Anna, who remained steadfast in her faith and did not leave the temple, “but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Lk 2:37). One can imagine that she prayed for herself, for others, for the coming of the Messiah, and for the salvation of Israel. She was sustained by this hope in the fulfillment of the promise (the coming of the Messiah) and by her confidence that she would be welcomed by God at the hour of her death.
2Offering our weakness to God and believing in his plan for our peace
The Bible presents us with several models of elderly people who are tested and suffer weakness. In the Book of Ruth, Naomi, whose name means “the sweet one,” has lost her husband and then her two sons, and asks to be called by a new name: “Mara,” that is to say “the bitter one, the afflicted one.” This shows how much she feels abandoned by God, and even condemned by him. “I went away full, but the Lord brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Rt 1:21)
Naomi’s journey leads us to reflect on the meaning of old age. Youth brings us health, friends, possessions, offspring, and hope; old age, on the other hand, gradually takes away many of these things. We may feel empty, alone, and destitute, and we go through a thousand little deaths.
However, Naomi will make a choice of faith by taking the risk of a dangerous journey to her homeland. God will fill her again through Ruth, her daughter-in-law, who will marry Boaz, her “redeemer,” a prefiguring of Christ the Redeemer.
Naomi will triumph in her inner struggle. Like her, we are called during the time of old age not to give in to a narrow vision of life but to believe that God has “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
By choosing day by day to renounce ourselves and all bitterness and regret, we surrender to God and place our trust in him. He then makes fulfillment possible, for as the elderly and barren couple of Elizabeth and Zechariah experienced when they gave birth to the prophet John the Baptist, “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).
3Providing support, consolation, and wisdom to younger generations
The Old Testament repeatedly calls on the older generation to instruct the younger. Psalm 145:4 encourages each generation to tell the next how beautiful God’s works are. As Sharon W. Betters and Susan Hunt, authors of Aging with Grace, point out, “God never wastes a trial, a bereavement, or a journey in the wilderness. Sharing with others the lessons he teaches us personally is fulfilling.”
Old age lived with discernment and faith qualifies us to help younger generations discern the beauty and meaning of each chapter of their own story, even if it sometimes seems disjointed.
Thus Anna the prophetess, at the time of the presentation of Jesus in the temple, had to console the Virgin Mary, who was upset by the prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:35). Simeon tells her that a sword will pierce her heart. One can imagine Anna’s compassion for Mary, and her words intended to strengthen the young virgin’s hope: she must certainly have reminded her that the Lord never abandoned the holy women of Israel, and that much less would he abandon the mother of his Son.
Like the prophetess Anna, like the good old man Simeon or Zechariah and Elizabeth who hoped beyond hope, we can choose to live a fulfilling old age in grace and love of God and neighbor.
In the end, reflecting on the last stage of our existence before the great encounter of our life (finding ourselves face to face with Christ) means asking ourselves, “How do I want to live my journey to Heaven?” This also means living each moment of our brief existence more intensely.