Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Every Age, O LORD, You Have Been Our Rescue.

Memorial of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, priest
Reading I
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it presses on to the place where it rises.
Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north,
the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds.
All rivers go to the sea,
yet never does the sea become full.
To the place where they go,
the rivers keep on going.
All speech is labored;
there is nothing one can say.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing
nor is the ear satisfied with hearing.

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.
Today we begin reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, another Wisdom book which follows immediately in our Bible on Proverbs.

The word “Ecclesiastes” is a Greek translation of the original Hebrew title of the book, Qoheleth, a word which means “Teacher”, one who conducts an assembly or a school. As the Greek word for ‘assembly’ is ekklesia; this explains the title we use.

The book is presented as being written by Solomon, a king famous for his wisdom, and this gave it weight as a “wisdom” book. However, scholars are agreed that the book was not written by Solomon but comes from a much later period when the Jews, back from exile and in Jerusalem, were under the empire of the Persians.

The book teaches wisdom by highlighting the emptiness of most human pursuits. “All is vanity.” The language often sounds negative and cynical. Even so, “in the face of death and ‘vanity’, Qoheleth repeatedly urges humans to embrace life and its goods - food, drink, love, work, and play - as gifts from God”. (Harper Collins Bible).

In the face of the emptiness and vanity of life, the Teacher does make two positive points:

a. Near the very end of the work he tells his reader to “fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”.
b. As humans have no really effective control over their environment and spend much of their time chasing the illusory, the real good is to enjoy life as a gift of God and it is in the area in which they find themselves that they are to find him.

The theme of the whole book is expressed in the opening words of today’s reading: “All is vanity.” The original meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘vanity’ was ‘mist’ or ‘breath’. It is one of the traditional group of images (water, shadow, smoke, etc.) used in Hebrew poetry to describe the transitory nature of human life. It is used 35 times altogether in this book but in Qoheleth the word has lost its usual meaning and for him signifies only the illusory nature of things and hence the delusions to which they subject the human family. The basic thrust of Ecclesiastes is that all of life is meaningless, useless, hollow, futile and vain if it is not rightly related to God. Only when based on God and his word is life worthwhile.

"What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?" It reminds one of the words of Jesus to his disciples: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his life?” A life without God and the values we identify with God, however much energy is put into it, is meaningless.

The second part of the reading is full of a kind of weariness and pessimism about the experience of life that many, if not most, people have experienced at some time. The world by itself seems to have no inner meaning. It goes on and on repeating the same cycles again and again. There is a terrible determinism and inevitability about everything. Yet, Job, who had his fair share of troubles, looking at the same world is filled with wonder and adoration. To quote a verse: “Two men looked out through prison bars / One saw mud and one saw stars.”

Of course, the author was writing in a world which had far less control over its environment than we have but even in our day there are still situations where we are basically helpless. Freak weather conditions, droughts and floods, earthquakes and volcanoes, deadly viruses, the breakdown of our bodies (often the result of our own indulgences and excesses in work and play), our recklessness with mind-altering substances (nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs), and the unforeseeable breakdown and/or mishandling of our technologies (e.g. car and plane crashes)… all of these can bring the most dazzling of human achievements to nothing, sometimes in a split second.

Meanwhile, as the Teacher says, the world goes on just as before without us. Generations come and generations go; the sun rises and sets; the wind blows from the north today and from the south tomorrow and back again; the rivers keep flowing into the sea but the sea remains the same in volume. The world goes on indefinitely but human life can disappear very quickly.

The cycles of life are repeated again and again. “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is a phrase the Teacher will use 29 times in his book. It could be heard as very cynical but it also has a genuinely positive meaning.

We may feel that in our exciting technological world new things are constantly appearing. ‘New’ is a word constantly shouted at us by products in our supermarkets and TV ads. Yet, the deeper experiences of life repeat themselves again and again. Maybe we understand them a bit better but the experiences themselves and the fragility of life have not changed since the Teacher’s days.

Jesus put this in another way when he reminded us that we did not know the day nor the hour when our life would come to an end. There is not a single person, however rich or however powerful, who knows when that hour will take place.

The purpose of such a reflection, then, is not to fill people with fear and discouragement but with a realistic awareness of the ultimate purpose of living.

What is the quality and purpose of my life at this time? Is my day spent in seeking and finding him or am I in search of something else which I have no guarantee of either finding or keeping? Or, on the other hand, am I so in touch with my Lord that, no matter when it happens, I will be ready to answer his call and run to him full of desire for perfect unity with him?*
+++    +++    +++    +++  
Psalm 90
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You turn man back to dust,
saying, "Return, O children of men."
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
But by evening wilts and fades.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
Prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:7-9
Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening,
and he was greatly perplexed because some were saying,
"John has been raised from the dead";
others were saying, "Elijah has appeared";
still others, "One of the ancient prophets has arisen."
But Herod said, "John I beheaded.
Who then is this about whom I hear such things?"
And he kept trying to see him.
Today we have a short interlude which is leading to some very special revelations.

Herod the tetrarch (his father Herod the Great’s kingdom had been divided among four sons) is hearing stories about what Jesus is doing. ‘Tetrarch’ means the ruler of the fourth part of a kingdom. This one, Herod Antipas, was one of several sons; the kingdom was divided among four of them. Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to 39 AD. Although not strictly speaking a ‘king’ he is called that in Matthew and Mark following popular usage.

Herod is puzzled because he is being told that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. At the same time others are saying that Elijah, whose expected return would signal the arrival of the Messiah, or some of the former biblical prophets has reappeared. Herod has recently beheaded John the Baptist and the superstitious king is filled with a mixture of fear and curiosity. He “kept trying to see Jesus”.

Luke does not actually record the death of John and, in this short passage, he prepares the reader for the later meeting of Herod with Jesus (23:8-12). So Herod’s wish will be partially fulfilled at a later date though under very unexpected circumstances and in a way that Herod will find very unsatisfactory. He is hoping that Jesus, like some circus dog, will do some ‘tricks’ or ‘miracles’ for him. [In the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar' Herod asks Jesus to walk across his swimming pool.]

Herod’s desire was almost entirely one of curiosity, it was the desire of the hedonist and the seeker of novelty. To see Jesus, in the full Gospel sense, is something totally other. It can only happen to those who have the eyes of faith and who can see in the person of Jesus the presence and power of God. We may recall the request of some “Greeks” who told Philip they wanted to see Jesus and the reply that Jesus gave about the grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying (John 12:20-26). We have not seen Jesus if we do not know him in his suffering and dying as his way to new life.

Let us ask to see Jesus today, a seeing that leads to a total acceptance of his way of life and following him all the way, through the cross and beyond to a life that never ends.*

The Irish Jesuits
A message from Fr John L

Later this morning, I'm leaving on a week-long holiday, and I won't be bringing my laptop with me.  [I've tried that in the past, and the transmission doesn't work very well.]   The daily Scriptures and commentaries have been logged on through the end of the month.  You may continue to make comments, if you choose to, but be aware that I will not be in a position to post your comment, or my response, until after I return to my residence. 

You will all be in my thoughts, prayers and Mass intentions every day.

God bless you all. 

Father John L.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

If this comment finds you before you leave, have a very happy holiday, Father John, and thank you so much for remembering your little cyber-flock!

I'm touched and impressed by the way the Old Testament readings for yesterday and today show people centuries before Christ seriously trying to live their lives in a right way - not for the sake of prosperity, but of rightness itself. What a strange idea Ecclesiastes has too, that eyes or ears might be seeking their own satisfaction - something that would fill them up like the sea:

'The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor is the ear satisfied with hearing'

This too reminds me of the prophecies of people who look but do not see and listen but do not hear - there is a yearning in humanity.

Herod Antipas shows this longing in the line: 'And he kept trying to see him.' His disappointment when he finally does see and hear Jesus echoes Ecclesiastes: 'Even the thing of which we say, "See, this is new!" has already existed in the ages that preceded us.' But in fact this line testifies to the divine nature of Christ: He is both something new under the sun, making all things new, and the one who pre-exists us and all things - eternally begotten of the Father. The expression of disappointment in Ecclesiastes is - if we look carefully - a proclamation of something utterly wonderful!