Saturday of Week 25 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8

Today we come to the end of our selections from this book. Even in translation one can see the poetry of the passage. Again it can be read in a very pessimistic way or with a sense of realism.

The reading deals with the inevitability of old age and what it brings.

In Jewish tradition, going back to the book of Deuteronomy, long life was seen as a reward promised by God and the greatest blessing given to those who had led good lives. However, for Qoheleth, old age is not happiness but the fear of death, regrets for one’s younger days, the slowing-down of life, and a painful slowing down “before the dust returns to the earth”.

So he begins by urging the young to enjoy their lives while they still have the energy and vigour to do so. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!” They should follow the promptings of their hearts and the desires of their eyes, but with the caveat that some day they will have to give an account to God of their actions.

There seems to be a mixed signal when he tells them to “cast worry from your heart, shield your flesh from pain” because youth is but a “dawn” and it will not last long. For such a carefree and hedonistic life is in fact highly deceptive. For “youth, the age of dark hair, is vanity”. The wise young person will be mindful of the Creator while there is still time.

For the days are coming when life will give little pleasure and a kind of darkness (occasioned by weakening sight and cataracts?!), when sun and light and moon and stars grow dim and the clouds return after the rain.

There follows then a sad but moving description of old age:

when strong men become bowed down,
when women can no longer grind corn,
(through hardness of hearing?) so many sounds are no longer heard –
the sound of the mill,
the singing of the birds,
the sounds of song –
and when walking uphill becomes a dreaded ordeal.

Yet, while all that is happening, life continues with never-ending normality:

the blossoms come out on the almond tree
the grasshopper is heavy with food, and
the trees bear their fruit…

but we move inexorably towards our “everlasting home” in the bosom of the earth.

Already the mourners are getting ready to see us off, awaiting the moment “before the silver cord has snapped, or the golden lamp has been broken, or the pitcher shattered at the spring, or the pulley cracked at the well, or before the dust returns to the earth as it once came from it, and the breath of God who gave it” – all poetic ways of describing the ultimate return to the earth of the dust from which we came.

Finally, the Teacher closes his message using the same words with which he opened his book: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”

Yet, as the Jerusalem Bible comments:

“…while the book ends with the same words with which it began, in between it has covered much ground. It reminds us of our wretchedness and powerlessness but also of our greatness, by showing us that there is something greater beyond the world in which we live. It points us in the direction of the God who is above and beyond all that we can experience. “It incites the reader to disinterested religion and to that kind of prayer in which a creature, aware of its nothingness, adores the mystery of God.”

Vanity, or meaninglessness, is not the last word.

It is possible to feel depressed on reading this book but that is not its ultimate purpose and certainly not the intention of those who chose these readings for the liturgy.

Underneath the apparent negativity and cynicism is the deep truth of the transitoriness and fragility of all existence and the importance of our using well the time – long or short – that has been given to us and, through the joys and pains that make up every life, finding God’s love and compassion there. Life is to be enjoyed but with the realisation that, on this earth, it has a very definite end for each individual.

Underneath it all, one is reminded of the great ‘Contemplation to Attain the Love of God’ which concludes the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola.  In four steps, the one doing the Exercises is urged to be aware of:

  1. the blessings of creation and redemption with which one is surrounded;
  2. how God is present in every level of creation, bringing it to its destined fulfilment;
  3. how God works for me through every created thing, including his Son Jesus Christ; and finally,
  4. how reflection and contemplation on all of this brings me to the very Source of everything.  “In him, we live, and move, and have our very being” (Acts 17:28)

To be united with that Source is my final Destiny and I can say with Paul:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:38-39)

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