To grow in humility, try this mental exercise. Consider all of your accomplishments. Mentally gather everything you have achieved. Now consider what it will mean 100 or 200 years after your death. Does the world remember what you have done? Does it remember you? Humbling isn’t it.
Qoheleth, the protagonist of our first reading this Sunday (Eccl 1:2, 2:21-23), is well acquainted with the exercise above. Not surprisingly he has a dark perspective. Consider his desperate cry: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” Qoheleth spent his life seeking wisdom (Eccl 1:12-18). But at the end of his quest he concludes “I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind”. What a downer!
The Book of Ecclesiastes often surprises people. Not so much for its message, but that such a message is included in the Bible. Isn’t the Bible supposed to be good news? Isn’t it supposed to set us on the right path? But if all is vanity, why do anything at all? If all is meaningless, why bother? The Bible promises us, not niceties, but truth. In Ecclesiastes we get an honest, albeit sobering, look at death.
In the Old Testament, death is the unanswered, all-conquering, enemy. Nothing gets past it. Qoheleth, in his search for wisdom, stares death in the face. He courageously engages it, but what he finds nearly destroys him: “in much wisdom there is much sorrow, and he who stores up knowledge stores up grief” (Eccl 1:18).
If death is the last word, then things have no purpose. What difference is there between the wise and the foolish when “one lot befalls both of them” (Eccl 2:14)? What ultimate value is there in being hardworking and virtuous, when you share the same dark reward as the lazy and vicious? Death, for Qoheleth, makes all things vain.
Qoheleth, of course, is right. That is, he would be right, if it were not for Jesus Christ. Jesus defeated death (Rom 6:9, 8:2; 2Tim 1:10). If death made all things vain, then Jesus made “all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Christ’s victory invests the world with new purpose (Col 1:18-20). He overthrows death’s cruel dictatorship and gives life an enduring significance: to live forever with the one who loves us.
The humility exercise described above helps us to detach from the world. Chances are, much of what we do and who we are will not be remembered shortly after we die. But there is One who will remember it all. There is One who will always know us, always love us. And that One died so that we never will.
Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s reflections on the Scriptures.