In our youth-obsessed society, Rev David Shosanya brings to the fore the role of the elderly in the Christmas story, and reminds us not to sideline people just because they are old.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio programme, where the presenter was exploring the question of age, particularly the elderly. The general trend of the discussion went something like this: something has gone terribly wrong in a society where the elderly are no longer respected and valued, and they are seen to be and projected to wider society as a burden on the nation’s resources.
It is estimated that there are some 10 million plus individuals over the age of 65 in the UK. Over 3 million are over the age of 80, and that number is predicted to grow to around 6 million by 2030, and to 8 million by 2050. Statisticians suggest that the number will grow by 5.5 million in 20 years, with the number of elderly doubling to 19 or 20 million by 2050. (We had better be careful what we say or think, as we may actually be talking about you and me!)
It would be foolish to even attempt to deny that national resources are being strained because individuals are living longer in Western societies.
A parliamentary White Paper, entitled The Ageing Population, makes this clear. The Paper states that 65% (approximately £100 billion or one seventh of all public expenditure) of the allocated budget for benefits at the Department for Work and Pensions is spent on those over the working age. The NHS is not immune from the pressures of increased expenditure incurred on treating the elderly (approximately £5,200 in comparison to £2,800 for non-retired homes).
However, we must ask whether this is a reason for the often disparaging and outright disrespectful attitudes and actions towards the elderly? There is an African proverb that says “Those who respect the elderly pave their own way to success.” That is wisdom in my view.
So, what is my point? What do the changing demographic patterns with respect to age have to do with Christmas? Well, you will be surprised.
Let me explain. Our society is focused – some might say obsessed – with youth, young people and youthfulness. (One only need observe how much money is spent on looking younger!) There are concerns about youth employment, the education of the young, the health of the young, young people and families, young people and social engagement … The list goes on. The concerns we have for our young people are important and necessary. They are legitimate concerns that we must wrestle and engage with, and seek to find solutions to. However, they must be seen in context, in relation to other people and communities, in relation to the elders.
Such is the obsession with everything young and youthful that we unconsciously preclude ourselves from seeing the bigger picture(s). Even our reading and representation of the Christmas story focuses on a young girl, Mary, the virgin mother, who has a Baby, Christ, who is the Saviour of the world.
A closer reading of the birth narratives of Christ in the gospels, especially in the Gospel of Luke, offers a perspective that is not so readily captured because of our obsession with the young and youthfulness. The Apostle Luke is concerned with issues of justice. He redefines the way in which children, women, the disabled, the poor and – in this immediate context – the elderly are portrayed
and represented in and through the mission of Christ. Woven into the fabric of the text, in an undeniable way, is the obvious presence of the elderly. Rather than the elderly being portrayed as burdensome and inconvenient, they are instead
located into the epicentre of the birth narratives, as indispensable actors in the drama of salvation.
Two such individuals are Anna, a prophet, and Simeon, referred to by Luke as ‘a righteous and devout man’. Both Anna and Simeon were instrumental in their old age, in assisting Mary and Joseph to fully grasp the significance of the baby Boy, Jesus, whom they had brought to the temple for dedication. In fact, Simeon, ‘moved by the Spirit’, is led to the temple where he ‘dedicates’ the Baby Jesus. I wonder whether Mary and Joseph would have missed out on the invaluable contribution – the historical perspective – that Anna and Simeon were privy to, had they been despised by virtue of their age? I guess so!
This Christmas, I encourage us to remember to honour the elders in our families and communities, to give them their due respect, and to resist the temptation to either overlook or sideline them.
By so doing, we honour the biblical command to esteem those who have gone before us and upon whose shoulders we stand.
I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Rev David Shosanya is a Regional Minister & Director with the London Baptist Association