Thursday, September 22, 2022

Homily: Thursday 25th Week in Ordinary Time

Yesterday afternoon, I was asked by St. Lawrence Parish in Bushnell, Florida if I would help them by conducting a Liturgy of the Word with Communion this morning. Their pastor apparently had a commitment, so they sought out a deacon to assist. St. Lawrence is only a 30-minute drive from my home, so I was happy to help out. My homily follows:


Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; Psalm 90; Luke 9:7-9

First, believe me, it’s a joy to be here with you at St. Lawrence Parish. You might not know this, but 19 years ago, when I arrived here in the Orlando Diocese I was assigned to this parish. In those days St. Vincent de Paul was a mission church of St. Lawrence Parish, and I can remember coming here frequently to attend parish council and other meetings. But things have certainly changed, haven’t they?

I usually preach on or at least touch on the Gospel reading, but today I decided to offer a little change of pace. I decided instead to focus on our reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, mainly because it’s a reading that’s too often avoided, and I thought you deserved better.

Let me set the stage with a little personal history.

I’ve always been interested in astronomy, and even studied it in college. I always saw it as a science where one comes closer to grasping the splendor of God’s creation as well as His awesome power.

I also spent many years as a Navy pilot, and when at sea would enjoy looking at the stars. In mid-ocean, away from the lights of civilization, the effect is remarkable. The stars are a hundred times brighter, the planets are clearly defined, and our galaxy, the Milky Way, lives up to its name. In near-total darkness you can see the entire sky from horizon to horizon, almost as if you’ve left the earth and are there in space in the midst of creation.

I recall one night particularly well. I tried to read a little Scripture each day, and I had just read the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, which include today’s first reading. Those verses had disturbed me, as I suppose they have disturbed many people.

If we take it literally, Ecclesiastes is a depressing, almost fatalistic, book. Some call it the most depressing book in the bible, and even question why it was included in the first place. It seems to say that everything that will be has already been, that nothing is new, everything just repeats itself, again and again. Rain falls, making streams which flow into rivers and then to the ocean, only to be vaporized and return again as rain. On and on it goes. Life is just a vicious and frustrating circle. What goes around comes around.

And the author doesn’t just address nature. He also implies that human activity is equally futile, implying that working hard is a waste of time. Why bother? You’ll never really enjoy the fruits of your labor. Someone else will, someone who won’t appreciate you or your work.

The author, Qoheleth, shouts to the world: All that we do is vanity.

As I said, when we take this at face value, it can sound very depressing. And I’ll admit, it depressed me that night at sea 30 years ago.

Then I went up on deck and looked up at the stars. How long had they been there? Billions of years. The distances are so vast we can’t begin to comprehend them, except abstractly through mathematics. How powerful and eternal is the God who made it all! And how small and insignificant are we.

As all these thoughts went through my mind, I recalled the words I had just read moments before:

“What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun. Even the thing of which we say, “See, this is new!” has already existed in the ages that preceded us. There is no remembrance of the men of old; nor of those to come will there be any remembrance among those who come after them” [Eccl 1:9-11].

Suddenly I understood what Qoheleth meant by “All things are vanity” [Eccl 1:2] – or a more accurate translation of the Hebrew, “all things are mist (or breath).” In a sense, he meant the same thing that St. Thomas Aquinas meant when, near the end of his life, he looked back on his remarkable work and said, “It is all straw.”

Ecclesiastes is now among my favorite books of the Old Testament. It’s a very unique book, really the Bible’s only book of philosophy, for it is based solely on human reason. God is silent in the book, until the very end.

The author was obviously a man of position, highly regarded for his wisdom. Indeed, his name means “teacher.” And he’s telling us that time conditions life, so no human achievements – all those “under the sun” things -- have lasting value. In the overall scheme of things, he tells us, our seemingly important human work is really futile.

Qoheleth really asks the question that the rest of sacred Scripture was written to answer: What is the purpose of life? Is there a purpose? For what we need most of all – meaning and purpose and hope in our lives – is precisely what Qoheleth questions.

This is a dangerous question because if we can’t answer it, we are left with the world’s worst news, that life is meaningless. By including Ecclesiastes in Sacred Scripture first the Jewish rabbis and then the Church showed tremendous confidence in their ability to provide a real answer.

For the Jews, the answer was trust and hope, trust in God’s faithfulness to His Covenant and hope in the promise of a Messiah. For the Church, the answer isn’t the hope of a Messiah, but His reality in the person of Jesus Christ.

And so, instead of the worst news, we have the Good News; we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and what a positive answer this is!

Jesus, the eternal, creative Word of God, He who created this immeasurable, incomprehensible universe, actually became one of us to show His infinite love for us.  From Jesus we learn there actually is human work that’s not “under the sun” – human work that’s truly “out of this world” – the work of building the Kingdom of Heaven.

We’re not here just to live from day to day, filling our stomachs and our bank accounts, until we die and disappear from human memory. No, we’re here to build up the mystical Body of Christ, the kingdom of loving souls, and death is not the end, but just the beginning.

Secondly, vanity and despair are not the meaning of life. Love is the meaning of life. God created us out of love because love is His very nature. And He asks us to return that love to Him and share it with each other.

We discover later that Qoheleth recognizes this, because at the very end of his book, he tells us:

“The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this concerns all humankind; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad" [Eccl 12:13-14].

Qoheleth exposes the God-shaped hole in the human heart. It’s a hole that can’t be filled by anything in the world, for nothing material is great enough to fill that emptiness. Only one thing can fill it, and it isn’t a thing; it’s a Person: Jesus Christ, who came to conquer death and evil. The Book of Ecclesiastes asks the question, and Jesus Christ is the answer.

In St. Augustine’s famous words, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and therefore our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

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