Second Sunday of Christmas (C) - Sirach 24:1-12
In some parts of the Jewish tradition, the scriptural text is believed to be truly holy, in and of itself. That means that when a Bible gets old, torn and tattered and weathered by use, it can’t just be thrown away. It needs to be treated with dignity and respect, loved and cherished for the holy thing that it is. Copies of the Bible—particularly Torah scrolls of the kind used in synagogues—are collected together in a particular place, and when a certain quantity is gathered together, they are buried with ceremony and ritual. For some Jewish communities, this has extended to anything that quotes the Bible, too. Or is about the Bible. Or is Bible-like. Or hints at God. Or is written in Hebrew, the language of the Bible. Or… well, you get the idea. The documents are collected together in a place called a “genizah,” a room for storage until they can be permanently committed to burial in the ground.
At Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt, the first document placed in the genizah was put there in about the year 870 AD. It was a room upstairs in the oldest part of the synagogue building. Over the years, more and more things were added, and while some were occasionally removed and returned to the elements, most just piled up, collecting dust. A thousand years worth of dust is really something, but in fact, it wasn’t until 1896 when Solomon Schechter, with the help of sisters and scholars Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Olson, opened up the genizah and had a good look at what was in it. Most of it has made its way to Cambridge and other university library holdings, though not all of it has been particularly useful. There are legal and court documents, letters, economic transactions, commentaries on scripture, anthologies of poems, and all kinds of other things hidden in the soiled, crumbling pages that were discovered. For religious scholars, though, the most valuable discovery was a copy of most of the book of Sirach.
Sirach is one of those books we call “apocryphal” or “deuterocanonical,” added to the Bibles of Catholic and Orthodox Christians but conspicuously missing from the Protestant and Jewish scriptures. Luther cut them out of the Bible when he translated it, probably mostly because they were written not in Hebrew but in Greek, but he commended them to Christians as valuable reading for devotional purposes. The books all come from the last three or four centuries before Christ, telling additional stories about Daniel and Esther, as well other Jewish characters like Judith and Tobit, giving a history in the books of Macabees that continues where Ezra and Nehemiah left off, and offering a vast body of poetry and wisdom literature from the late Jewish tradition as it encountered Greek thought. Our psalmody today, from the Wisdom of Solomon, is also apocryphal, from one of my favorite books in this body of literature stuck between the Old Testament and the New. But among them, Sirach was probably the most important for Christians.
In the earliest days of the church, it’s clear that Sirach was treated as part of the scriptural corpus right alongside the rest of the books of the Bible. Some of the New Testament authors, and a goodly number of other Christian writers in the first few centuries AD, quoted directly from it. From records and writings that we have from antiquity, it’s clear that Sirach was used as an important text for catechesis—that is, for teaching new Christians how to become Christians and what Christianity was all about. If we used it in that capacity today, it would be the main textbook for Confirmation classes. The book eventually became known by the name “Ecclesiasticus,” a Latin word which means, “the church book,” and throughout the centuries it was treated as just that, a book for teaching how to be the church.
Like all the apocryphal books, it exists in Greek. For many of those books, Greek was probably the language in which they were written. But for Sirach, scholars had long suggested that it might have been originally written in Hebrew, but that the Hebrew version had been lost to history. And there, as Solomon Schechter was paging through the purchase receipts and legal descriptions from the Cairo Genizah, he turned to a page of Hebrew and recognized it. And just like that, the original Hebrew text—or at least about two-thirds of it—had been found.
Today’s reading from Sirach talks about Wisdom, describing her as a female character, placed among the “assembly of the Most High.” The oldest generation of the Hebrews imagined not one single God who ruled the earth, but a heavenly assembly made up of gods for each nation, with their God presiding as the leader of that assembly. The greatest God among the gathering of all the gods. By the time Sirach was written, Israel had learned monotheism, knowing that there really was only one God, but retained that heavenly assembly image as valuable in describing God’s supreme authority, populating it with, perhaps, angels, or some other kind of semi-divine being. Wisdom personified is there among the assembly, but She has a particular special place of her own amongst those gathered. She “came forth from the mouth of the Most High,” is greater than the other divine beings because She Herself is an emanation from God, intimately connected with, even identified with, God in a way that the others are not. Her throne was in a pillar of cloud—a clear allusion to the presence of God during the exodus—and She had a place in every part of creation. The vault of heaven. The depths of the abyss. Every people and nation. In all these She has sought a place to dwell. And ultimately, the Creator sends her to dwell with the people of Israel, ministering to God in the holy tabernacle, in the city of Jerusalem, in the very midst of God’s people.
And it’s worth remembering, at this point, that all this was written in the early 200s BC. Israel was captured by the Assyrians, and Judah by their successors, the Babylonians. And then the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, who became the Hebrews’ new masters. And then the Achaemenids took over. And then the Selucids, who brought with them Greek Hellenistic thought. That’s five empires holding sway over Israel over about as many centuries. Israel is pretty much a tiny little pawn being tossed back and forth between major powers. And we, of course, know it’s about to become part of the Roman Empire. Israel is not worth mention in the scope of world politics and the entirety of human endeavors. It’s a place that is discarded, unimportant, tossed away, tucked into the trash heap, the genizah, of the world. And it’s exactly that place that Wisdom, the emanation from God’s mouth, the Word of God, takes up residence.
This is the time of year we celebrate the incarnation, the Christmas event, the baby in the manger with shepherds and angels and wise men. Some people talk about keeping the Christ in Christmas, and others about letting the Spirit of Christmas extend throughout the year. There’s joy, and peace, and gift-giving, and all kinds of layers of meaning we’ve put on top of the holiday to explain it and live into it. In the process, I think sometimes we forget the real point of all this stuff. What Christmas is really all about.
We are kind of a disaster of a people. We’ve made a mess of our world. We use our technology and advancement and knowledge for personal gain and hoarding of stuff and gathering of power over others. We deny some people in our society basic human dignity and rights because we are afraid of losing some of our own in the process. We don’t love all of creation and all of humanity the way that God does, the way that God wants us to. And we don’t love God most of all. Created in God’s own image, we are holy people of a certain kind, but still basically worth discarding, sacred trash.
But there, appearing in the midst of the genizah of humanity, is a rare treasure, a jewel of an item. God’s own Word, written on the parchment of humanity, Wisdom taking up Her dwelling place in the midst of a forgotten people, God made manifest in Jesus Christ. By taking on flesh and dwelling among us, God declares us worthy, worthwhile, valuable, a priceless fortune. This is what Christmas is about. God stooping down to become one of us, and thereby lifting us up to become like Him.
You are of incalculable worth, a pearl of great price. And where the world might overlook you, might discard you, toss you away, God has given up everything to ransom you, His prized treasure. Jesus has come, not just for many, but for you. Amen.