If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.
22 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 50-51
The book ends with two very different chapters. The first describes in detail some of the rituals of the Temple, over two thousand years ago, but so slow is change in religious circles that the High Priest of those days, if transported to a Catholic or traditional Anglican church now, would not feel completely out of place. A priest in vestments that have changed little since Roman times, standing before (or behind) an altar, raising his hands in prayer, holding a cup of wine as an offering, the smell of incense, the sound of the organ perhaps resembling the trumpets of his day, a choir chanting psalms, and at the end a blessing over the assembled people. And all this in a building designed to symbolise segregation – the narthex for ordinary activities such as eating and drinking, the nave for the laity to worship, a chancel for the choir, the sanctuary with its altar only for the priest.
There are differences, of course, and the Mass even in a very traditional setting is not intended to resemble an animal sacrifice. Women priests (in an Anglican setting) might be the biggest surprise to our time traveller. The congregation is more likely to be standing or seated than prostrate in prayer – an attitude now found more in Islam than Christianity, but a powerful symbol of humility before God. But overall, the principles of communal worship have not changed that much.
The whole book of Ecclesiasticus has been, supposedly, about Wisdom, and the second half of the last chapter (51:13-30) summaries the search for her. This female personification of God’s inspiration has taken the writer in many directions – good and bad relationships, sex and marriage, and the value of friendship; asceticism, indulgence and a healthy attitude towards money; life, death and the afterlife; good and evil; truth, lies, gossiping and careful speech; physical and mental health; worship of God and admiration for his creation; and the guidance of God for his people throughout history. A whole library of practical life skills, in fact. It deserves to be more widely read.