The Apocrypha in Lent – 18 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

18 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 35-38

Today I am taking the short passage in Ecclesiasticus 38:1-15 headed “medicine and illness”.

These days there are many discussions about the place of various approaches to health.  There is “conventional medicine” by which we mean medicines prescribed by a doctor or sold by a pharmacist.  Many of these now are produced industrially although some still use natural plant extracts – arnica for bruises, for example. Then there are “traditional”, “herbal” or “natural” medicines which shun the fruits of scientific research and rely only on an older body of knowledge of the effects of various plants.

Then there are “alternative” approaches to treatment such as homeopathy, which is widely trusted by many people but equally widely regarded with scepticism by doctors who cannot see how a substance diluted until barely a few molecules of active ingredient may be present can be of any benefit.  With that, then, we are getting closer to “faith healing”, which for Christians means praying in the name of Jesus for someone’s wholeness, including relief from pain or cure for a disease.   No-one except a few charlatans suggests that everyone who asks for prayer will be healed, but enough do claim to have benefited from such healing prayer for others to seek it too.

So what is the approach of the writer of Ecclesiasticus to health matters? “The doctor, too, has been created by the Lord; healing itself comes from the Most High, like a gift from a king” (v.2). “the Lord has brought medicines into existence from the earth; the sensible man will not despise them” (v.4).   So the natural healing properties of plants are seen as gifts of God, certainly not to be rejected.  There was no pharmaceutical industry as we know it in those days, but “the chemist makes up a mixture from them” shows that there was a tradition of making medicines of some kind.

The writer then moves on to mental and spiritual health. “When you are ill, do not be depressed, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Renounce your faults, keep your hands unsoiled, and cleanse your heart from all sin”.  That reference to renouncing sin may be uncomfortable to today’s humanists, but it is now generally agreed that physical health and well-being are closely linked to mental health, good diet, exercise and spiritual well-being (whether that is defined in terms of religious faith or a secular understanding of spirituality as mindfulness and self-awareness).

The benefits of traditional or modern medicines, then, are not to be rejected (whether we see them as “natural” or “God-given”), but experience suggests that their effects will be greater if these other aspects of our overall well-being are attended to as well.  The Bible has a name for it – Shalom. This word is usually translated as “peace” but meaning far more than the absence of stress and conflict and really means a wholeness of mind, body and spirit.  No wonder that “shalom” or “salaam” is a common greeting among Eastern people even today.

Wholeness through worship

This is one of my extra posts, in between the daily Bible commentary. It is the text of the homily I gave at Evensong yesterday at the church of St Margaret, Bramley (Leeds). The theme of the service was “wholeness” and the readings, to which I refer, were: Psalm 139:1-11; Proverbs 3:1-18;  1 John 3:1-15.

Thank you for coming to share with us in Evensong tonight.  This is an ancient form of worship, one which a generation ago people thought was on its way to extinction, as Anglicans gave up the habit of going to church two or three times on a Sunday, and as new and more modern forms of service came along.  Surely no-one wanted all this 16th century stuff any more?

But they were wrong.  In the last few years there has been a boom in attendance at Evensong at many cathedrals and parish churches.  It is not only the elderly, but a younger generation who are finding meaning in it.  Why is that?

Let me suggest that what people are seeking is wholeness.  That is our theme this evening, as it will be at next Sunday’s Eucharist. There are several aspects to this form of worship that might help contribute to wholeness. Let’s briefly look at them.

Firstly there is peace and security. We live in a stressful and ever-changing world. Coming to a mainly quiet and reflective act of worship offers us the chance to lay aside the cares of the day and go with the flow of the music. Added to that is the sense of continuity that we get from using the same music and words that generations have used before us.  The Church of England, for all the benefits of diversity, is still founded on the worship of the Book of Common Prayer. Common, because it is what holds us together. When new people come along to a service of Evensong, even if the actual words are unfamiliar, they know that they are taking part in a tradition by which English Christianity has defined itself for centuries. The Church has survived all manner of wars, political upheavals, natural disasters and financial crises.  So even those who don’t yet hold a personal belief in Christ may find that the tradition acts as a rock in troubled waters.

Secondly there is the music itself.  It is well known now by health professionals that joining in singing, especially choral singing with its harmonies, is good not only for physical health as we exercise our lungs, but for mental health too.  Even if you don’t rate yourself as choir material, simply taking in the harmonies of the traditional chants as you listen can have some of the same mental health benefits.

Thirdly, there is the act of confession. There are also mental health benefits in being honest with yourself, acknowledging past wrongs and seeking support where you know you are weak.  In other forms of service this element of our religious practice can be skipped over rather quickly. The longer form of confession at Evensong, with its references to being like lost sheep and following the desires of our own hearts, reminds us that we really do need to turn to God to find a sense of direction in our lives; and the form of absolution leaves us in no doubt that we are forgiven.

Finally, there is the scripture.  Again, the passages that we read at Evensong tend to rather longer than those in the Eucharist. The lectionary also sometimes explores the more obscure corners of the Bible.  A careful reading of a lengthy passage in the archaic language of the King James version requires the listener to concentrate carefully on what is being said. That is no bad thing, because it allows the Spirit to penetrate our defences and speak to the inner person through the words that we hear.

So where can we find a sense of wholeness in the readings, which are just those set for the day.  The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, that God knows our every word, thought and action, and loves us both because of and despite what we do.   I’m not so sure about the proverb that fearing the Lord being “health to the navel and marrow to the bones” – the modern translation is “a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.”

St John, as always, comes up with the goods. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.” This Christian love among brothers and sisters , he says, is evidence that we have passed from death to life, as Jesus takes away the tendency to commit sin and to hate or be jealous of others.  That passing from spiritual death to spiritual life is surely the ultimate expression of wholeness.

Let us now ask the Lord to let us go in peace as we sing “Nunc dimittis”.

© Stephen Craven 2017