Vanity of Vanities

July 31, 2016
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

Does life have any meaning? Usually we’re too busy to contemplate deep questions like this and because of that, they can haunt the back of our minds, looking for the right moment to come forward and disturb us. This particular needling question pops up when we hit a crisis, a season of depression, a time of change. Since we normally tout the Bible as the Big Answer Book, it might be surprising that the Bible itself asks some of these central questions. This Sunday’s first reading from Ecclesiastes hits the nail on the head.

All is Vanity!

The reading itself is short, giving us just a few key lines from the book. It’s a good thing that we get the important lines because this is only reading from Ecclesiastes in the whole 3-year cycle of Sunday liturgical readings. “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth” (Eccl 1:2 NAB). This first line of the book contains the message and the mysteries of the book as a whole. “Vanity” translates the Hebrew hebel, which means “vapor, breath.” Right at the start, the book shows us how different it is from all of the other books in the Bible. It doesn’t teach about meaning, but instead points a finger at the whole world and declares it meaningless! Qoheleth is a transliteration of a Hebrew word of uncertain meaning that in ancient times was interpreted as “assembly leader.” Since ekklesia in Greek is “assembly,” we thus get “ecclesiastes” as “assembly leader.” (No, Ecclesiastes is not plural for “ecclesiaste”!) Qoheleth is the main character of Ecclesiastes, the spokesman, whose voice is recorded by the book.

The Honest Truth

This book comes at the whole problem of the Bible and divine revelation from the opposite direction that we’re used to. Instead of containing a message, it asks a question. In fact, the Catholic philosopher, Peter Kreeft, says that Ecclesiastes is the question to which the whole Bible responds. He says, “It is divine revelation precisely in being the absence of divine revelation. It is like the silhouette of the rest of the Bible” (See Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life). The questioning nature of the book makes it incredibly valuable in our era. Since it speaks from the human perspective, instead of the divine, it reads like a book of existentialist philosophy people can relate to. It is true to our experience, so true in fact, that the novelist Herman Melville asserts in Moby Dick that “the truest of all book is Ecclesiastes.” The book presents the problem of what it means to be human. Alongside Qoheleth, we search high and low for answers to the gnawing fear inside of us that we’re all alone, that all of life is useless and we’ll just end up six feet under ground and no one will remember us. He takes this fear by the horns and stares it in the face, offering up the most despairing of answers—there is no answer.

Searching for Meaning

Qoheleth sets up the whole book as a kind of experiment, in which he searches for the meaning of life through a series of projects—kind of like the contemporary Quantified Self movement. He starts off searching for wisdom, but decides in the end that, “in wisdom is much vexation” (1:18 RSV). Then he moves on to pleasure and tries to find meaning in life by satisfying all of his base desires, but again “all was vanity and a striving after wind” (2:11). By the point of our reading’s key passage, Qoheleth has exhausted two possible routes to happiness, meaning and fulfillment that we often to pursue: knowledge and pleasure. That’s why we go to college! Yet these things alone cannot grant the fulfillment he desires, the real meaning of life. All he finds is a bunch of meaningless “toil.” That is, pursuing these desires takes a lot of work, but their satisfaction does not result in the kind of happiness he is looking for:

What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity. (Eccl 2:22-23)

The doom-and-gloom conclusion Qoheleth reaches at the end of our reading points in two directions. First, it reminds us of what this Sunday’s gospel teaches: that you can’t take it with you. No matter how much wealth you accumulate in this life, it will die with you. In the end, there’s no rich or poor person after death. Second, Qoheleth brings us face to face with the deepest questions that we should be asking, struggling with and seeking answers for. He helps us feel the pain and emptiness that a selfish, sinful life brings—a meaningless existence, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth). From that low point of desperation, we can turn to God, seeking the answers to our longing for meaning in his Word, in his Son, in his Sacraments. We will find that life is far from the solipsistic meaninglessness Qoheleth finds. Instead, we are made for a beautiful, eternal communion, the ultimate fulfillment of our nature through going out of ourselves in love for Him and being filled by Him in return.

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Mark Giszczak (“geese-check”) was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. He studied philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, MI and Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute of Denver, CO. He recently received his Ph. D. in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. He currently teaches courses in Scripture at the Augustine Institute, where he has been on faculty since 2010. Dr. Giszczak has participated in many evangelization projects and is the author of the blog. He has written introductions to every book of the Bible that are hosted at Dr. Giszczak, his wife and their daughter, live in Colorado where they enjoy camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

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