Today we begin reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is our name for the Hebrew book entitled Qoheleth. The Hebrew word is a title rather than a name. It is given to a person who brings together or assembles a group for instruction. The Greek word for “assembly” is “ecclesia,” hence our title of Ecclesiastes.
Of all the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, this book is the most somber. As he reflects on the reality of human existence, the writer concludes that all of it is “vanity”; in other words, empty. I am reminded of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian/philosopher who is said to have regarded all of his writings as “so much straw in the wind” when compared to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Human existence is a struggle from beginning to end. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that the Hebrew children wandered through the desert for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. The number forty is very significant in the culture of these people. This might be attributed to the fact that most people of that time did not live to be forty as the average age expectancy was in the low thirties. Half of the children born never reached the age of puberty. Old age was considerably different for these people who would be astonished at the average age expectancy of our time and culture. I am mindful of my own stepfather who told me once that when he retired, he asked God to give him ten years to enjoy his retirement. That was twenty-seven years ago as he just celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday.
Reflecting on human existence, the sacred author uses images of the sun which rises and sets each day, of the wind which blows from the south one day and from the north another day, and of a river which flows relentlessly to the sea. These phenomena happen day after day. They never change. Nothing we do changes them. Human life is simply a matter of labor and striving which no one can take with them when they die. It is empty. It is vain. It is simply routine.
Our reading for today ends without any glimpse of resolution or hope. Indeed, as we read this passage today, we might think that the Church is simply pointing out the futile nature of human life. However, we always follow the first reading with a psalm and a passage from the Gospel. Today, psalm nineteen reminds us that even though our human existence is, by definition, empty of meaning, there is always the spiritual dimension which reminds us that our God is the God of kindness and mercy. Yes, we will wither like the grass, our bodies will crumble to dust; however, the wise man calls upon God for refreshment. That refreshment comes in the form of our Lord and Savior, Jesus, who has assured us that while human life may be empty, life with God follows for all those who place their hope in Him.
For those of us who struggle with chronic illness and disability, this reading speaks to the struggle that we encounter every day. For us, the hope we find in Jesus makes all of the emptiness we endure worthwhile.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.