Is Life a Vanity?


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Vanitas, by Jan Sanders van Hemessen
Peter Kreeft calls the book of Ecclesiastes “the greatest of all books of philosophy” and “the only book of pure philosophy in the Bible.”  It’s also the most depressing book in the Bible, which leads some to wonder what it’s doing there in the first place.  It’s the only book in the Bible that does not mention God.
Nevertheless, Ecclesiastes teaches us about God in the same way that droughts teach us about water, or death teaches us about life.  Ecclesiastes is all about meaninglessness, and so has much to teach us about meaning.
All of our readings for this Sunday touch on this notion of vanity, that there is no meaning to our existence.  Ecclesiastes says, “All things are vanity!” (Ecc 1:2).  Our psalm compares us to grass which springs anew in the morning, but by evening wilts and fades (Ps 90).  Jesus tells us a parable of a man who amasses much wealth, but who will die before he can enjoy any of it (Lk 12:13-21).
The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées, “the end is dreary, however fine the rest of the play.  They put a little dirt over your head, and that is the end, forever.  That is the end awaiting the world’s most illustrious life.”

If this is true, if this is all we can look forward to and life has no greater meaning, then nothing we do has any meaning, either.  And if nothing we do has meaning, that means one of two things. We could say, “why bother doing anything?” and fall into slothful depression.  Or we can say, “Why not do everything?” and fall into lust, greed and gluttony.  

Satre said that, “The existentialist… thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears with Him.”  Depression.  Hopelessness.

Dostoyevski said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permissible.”  Hedonism. Anarchy.

Ecclesiastes shows us what the world looks like without God, and this is why it is one of the most depressing, but also one of the most important books in the Bible.  The existence of God is the central fact of reality, and Ecclesiastes shows us what we can expect if we get that fact wrong.  Without God, we can hope for nothing.
This is why St. Paul exhorts those of us who are in Christ to stay focused on “what is above” and not the things of this earth (Col 3:1).  The things of this earth, as nice as they may be, ultimately can offer us nothing.  Nothing lasting, at any rate.  Nothing that will pass into eternity.  
Jesus reminds us poignantly that our life is not given meaning by our possessions.  The rich man in the parable amassed a lot of wealth, but was able to take none of it with him when he died.  His fate was the same as that of the pauper.  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return” (Job 1:21).
Only that which is eternal can offer meaning for us.  This is why our acknowledgement of God matters.  This is why having an active relationship with God matters.  Because God offers the meaning that we seek in all other aspects of our lives.
The psalmist prays to God, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12).  We will all meet the same end as the man in Jesus’ parable.  We will all end up buried in the ground, with our possessions (few or many) left behind, unable to give us any comfort.  This is not the measure of our life.  
God teaches us how to truly measure our lives.  Did we cloth the naked?  Did we feed the hungry?  Did we care for the sick and imprisoned?  Did we love our neighbor?  Were we patient?  Were we kind?  Did we keep the commandments?  Did we forgive?  Did we ask for forgiveness?  Did we give thanks?  Did we love God with all our heart?
None of these things matter if there is no God to give them meaning.  But with God, they are the only things that mean anything at all.  This is the wisdom we pray for in the psalm — to discern, in the light of Christ, that which has meaning, and that which is vanity; and to seek after that meaning, with Christ as our guide, all the days of our life.