By: Fr. Joseph Briody, Professor of Sacred Scripture
Walking with my father through Derrylohan Forest many years ago, we came on the remains of several old houses, fallen walls and rubble, mere ruins with trees growing over them. He remarked: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity! A generation goes and a generation comes . . .” It was the reading for Mass that day. This observation extends far beyond an Irish woodland. It’s a universal observation captured famously by Qoheleth in his Book of Ecclesiastes, today’s first reading.
Today’s first reading from Qoheleth may appear somewhat bleak! One generation goes. Another comes. All is vanity! “Vanity,” here, is not vanity in a prideful sense but vanity in the sense of something useless, like a puff of smoke or stale breath or exhaled air. The life has been sucked out of it. The term “vanity” captures the passing nature of life. It is a sobering thought. But it can also put things in perspective, especially if we know where we are going—and in Jesus Christ we do. He is, in fact, the Way, as well as the goal and destination: “Come to me,” he invites us: “I am the beginning and the end.”
Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth), the book responsible for this downer, reminds us just how honest and real the Bible is. Hidden desperation afflicts many of our contemporaries. Virginia Woolf once wrote in desperation: “We live without a future . . . with our noses pressed to a closed door” (Manchester and Reid, The Last Lion, vol. 3, 239). All is vanity indeed!
Scripture takes account of every aspect of life, even the most difficult. The Word of God takes us seriously. Its concern is not primarily glib soundbites—though it contains the most important lines in history. Qoheleth offers us an important word, but it is not the last word of God to us. If only Qoheleth could have heard the words of Christ’s Gospel: “Be not afraid”; “Let not your hearts be troubled”; “in the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world;” “whoever eats this Bread will live forever.”
Qoheleth teaches us that we should make the most of the present. This is good advice since here, in the present moment, we meet God. The past is, in some senses, gone. The future is yet beyond us. The present is where we meet God. Qoheleth wants us to seize the day (carpe diem!) and to accept with gratitude the simple pleasures God places before us like food and drink, family and friends, rest and leisure. He doesn’t advocate hedonism or over-indulgence but fosters a balanced, even keeled, and virtuous life. He recommends that we accept the good God send. It’s God’s way of consoling us in the sufferings we meet.
In the end, having wrestled with difficult questions about life, Qoheleth implies that all is not vanity! In its conclusion, the Book of Qoheleth recommends that we fear God and keep his commandments, implying that there is indeed a meaning and purpose to life and that this lies in God himself. The other Sunday readings for today also broaden the horizon of hope beyond what Qoheleth might have imagined: Be careful against greed and be rich in what matters to God (Luke 12:13-21); “Seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father” (Col 3:1).
The Catholic does not read a biblical book in isolation, but in the light of the entire Bible, where other passages shed new light on the questions raised so honestly by Qoheleth. Indeed, the Catholic reads the Bible in the light of the faith of the Church who gives us the Bible—a faith centered on the Glorious Lord. We have a future. Our noses may be pressed against a door, but Jesus tells us: “knock, and the door will be opened for you.”