by Father Mike Stubbs
Sometimes, monks of the Middle Ages were pictured with a skull lying on the desk in their cell.
This practice meant to keep the prospect of death always in mind. It follows the advice of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who encouraged the practice of contemplating one’s own death as a means to attain wisdom.
One of the formulas for distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday reflects the same idea: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Similarly, the Book of Ecclesiastes aims at wisdom through its discussion of vanity. The word “vanity” appears seven times in Sunday’s first reading, Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23. It appears a total of 26 times in the entire book.
Here, vanity does not mean “excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities or achievements.” Rather, it means futility, emptiness, pointlessness. It is the situation that results when we do something “in vain.”
Our reading points out that even though a person may work hard all his life, all that will eventually end in death:
“Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property.”
To place one’s hopes in one’s own efforts is pointless. It is vanity. Recognizing that truth can lead to true wisdom.
It is easy to accuse the Book of Ecclesiastes of a cynical pessimism. If all is vanity, why bother with life?
Ultimately, though, the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that we are not in control, despite all our efforts; rather, God is in control. God’s ways are far beyond our understanding.
What is the point of life? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do some people succeed in life, while others experience failure? Why do evil people too often escape punishment? The Book of Ecclesiastes asks these questions, without providing any clear answers.
The Book of Ecclesiastes belongs to a category of the Old Testament called wisdom literature. Some of the books in that category, such as the Book of Proverbs, offer a practical wisdom, tips on how to live a happy life.
In contrast, the Book of Ecclesiastes probes deep philosophical issues, just as the Book of Job would delve into those same issues in its own dramatic fashion. In not providing easy answers to difficult questions, Ecclesiastes teaches us humility.
It maintains that humility is the truest form of wisdom. All else is vanity.