December 12, 2013
In the 1970s and 1980s, some demographers were warning the world of a population explosion that would lead to the death of millions of people. However, they were wrong. Their theory was based on the false assumption that the baby boom of the 1960s would simply continue.
Today demographers are no longer sounding the alarm about too many children being born. They are warning us of the exact opposite. The world’s population is expected to increase within the next forty years from 6.9 billion to 9.1 billion. This will happen not by an increase in the birth rate, which has already plummeted. It will come about by the skyrocketing population of the elderly!
Among developed nations, those aged 65 and older are the fastest growing population. In 1860, most people could not expect to reach the age of 65. In fact, at that time, almost half the people in the United States were under twenty years old. As living conditions improved and better healthcare became available, the number of elderly people has been steadily increasing. In 2010, 58 percent of Americans were over the age of 65. By 2025, the total population of those 65 and older will rise by more than 60 percent.
There is no shortage of dire predictions and ominous warnings about the “grey tsunami” about to crash against our personal and economic resources. As the number of the elderly who need care increases, the number of caregivers will decrease. With more and more families having fewer and fewer children, the number of family caregivers will soon prove inadequate to meet the needs of aging parents and relatives. Will the needs of the elderly overtake our capacity to care for them? Will their rightful demands for a decent standard of living and care be seen as a merciless drain on our society?
In his morning homily at Santa Marta, on November 19, 2013, Pope Francis addressed the Church’s growing concern for our aging population. He unmasked the attitude of those who feel that the elderly impose on their comfort. He lamented the attitude of those who consider the elderly of no account and, therefore, abandon them. He remarked, “We live in a time when the elderly don't count. It’s unpleasant to say it, but they are set aside because they are considered a nuisance.”
And, then in his first apostolic exhortation,
Evangelii Gaudium, (November 24, 2013), the Holy Father astutely contextualized the reason why, for some, the aged simply do not count. He wrote:
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw-away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers” (
Evangelii Gaudium, 53).
In our youth-conscious day, we fight against aging. We disguise our age and mask it in a futile effort to appear young. Once burdened with years, we fear being seen as useless. But, this is not the biblical understanding of age. Age is neither a disease nor a woe to humanity. Age is a right. It is a privilege given to some. The Scriptures speak of old age as being a “splendor” (Proverbs 20:29). The elderly have experience. God leaves our elderly here among us as a treasure to be valued and not hidden.
In the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the New Testament shows how truly important and valuable the aged are in God’s plan. The shepherds and the magi make their way into our Christmas pageants and nativity scenes. But, there are two other characters who, though absent from our depictions of Christ’s birth, enjoy a special role given them by God. The aged Simeon and the 84 year old Anna.
When Mary and Joseph, according to the law, present the 40 day old Child Jesus in the Temple, the old man Simeon, most likely a priest, and Anna, the prophetess, appear on the scene. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Simeon utters his
Nunc Dimittis (Lk 2:29-32). He praises God for sending Jesus to fulfill Isaiah’s promise of the Messiah who would be “a light of revelation for the Gentiles” (cf. Is 42:6; 49:6) and “the glory of God’s people Israel” (cf. Is 46:13).
Simeon also reminds Mary and Joseph that God’s plan would not be accomplished without suffering. Jesus is to be “the rise and fall of many” (Lk 2:34). Isaiah had predicted this (cf. Is 8:14). Mary herself would share in the redemptive suffering of her son. A sword would pierce her maternal heart (cf. Lk 2:35). Thus, the angels’ hymn
Glory to God in the highest finds its theological completion in Simeon’s canticle. The glory of God, sung by the heaven’s choir, is to become manifest in the Cross of Jesus, predicted by Simeon.
Anna appears next to Simeon. She brings to conclusion the list of pious Israelites named as surrounding the birth of Jesus, i.e. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and Simeon. In three terse verses, Luke vividly depicts Anna as a woman deserving the honor that belongs to the elderly (cf. Lk 2:36-38). As a prophetess, she outranks Simeon who is merely described as righteous and devout. In fact, she is the only female prophet explicitly named in the entire New Testament.
Moved by the Holy Spirit, Anna proclaims the child’s greatness as the one to bring about the deliverance of his people. In her words, she voices the hopes of all the
Anawim (God’s faithful poor). She wastes no time. Once she recognizes the child, she immediately begins to evangelize. She speaks “of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38). The Old Testament has now become the New.
Both the old man Simeon and the aged prophetess Anna embody in themselves the hopes and expectations of all the faithful of Israel. They express the memory and the dreams of those generations who waited in faith for the Messiah to come. Rooted in the rich soil of Old Testament prophecy and piety, their words instruct, encourage and provide a hope for the nascent Christian community represented in Mary and Joseph.
Pope Francis has remarked that “Young people take society into the future, while the older generation gives society its memory, its wisdom.” Jesus the child is bringing about a new future for humanity. Simeon and Anna are showing that future as fulfillment of the historical plan that God initiated long ago for our salvation.
As we gather this Christmas and eagerly watch the young excitedly open their gifts, we should lovingly look upon our elders who join with us. Those gray with years should not be mere spectators at our celebrations. Nor should they be seated in silence at our table. We would do well to listen to their wisdom. “The elderly pass on history, doctrine, faith… They are like a fine vintage wine, that is, they have within themselves the power to give us this noble inheritance” (Pope Francis, Homily at Santa Marta, November 19, 2013). Our elders are truly a rich vintage wine, not only at our Christmas table, but at the banquet of life!