What does life mean, anyway? As long as we are going to ask questions, let’s go for the big ones. In our first reading, Ecclesiastes, at least at first glance we seem to see that life doesn’t mean all that much. Vanity of Vanities, says quoheleth, all things are vanity. Quoheleth might be translated as “teacher” or “preacher” in Hebrew, but it literally means “gatherer,” as in one who gathers knowledge. And what is vanity? In Latin, vanity is derived from vanus which means “empty.” When we use the word “vain” we usually mean that somebody is stuck on themselves. But the better understanding of the word is something that “vain” means something empty, worthless, or without meaning.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, although some evidence disputes this. For the sake of argument I will just call him Solomon. First, Solomon talks about the toil it takes to search for knowledge, or to gain any real wisdom or skill whatsoever, and basically what is going to happen is that you are going to die, your property divided, and your deeds forgotten. Yay, huh? Just in case you weren’t listening, I’ll remind you of a few things he said.
“For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest.
This also is vanity.”
He identifies three forms of vanity:
First, basically that most of our efforts are without effect. We waste time, our plans fall apart, the phone calls we make do little good, etc.
The second form of vanity that Solomon identifies is that even if we get results, they are fragile. They will probably burn away soon like a dandelion is blown away by a child; or we won’t be satsified with our accomplishments or even if we make accomplishments they will be forgotten. And the third and final form of vanity mentioned is the fact that even if our efforts have lasting effect, the world is full of weirdness and injustice.
****Great. Thank you Solomon, and thank you Father Basil for giving me good solid ground for the clinical depression that I’m about to spiral into.
So what does life mean? Some say success, some say money, some say sex or power or happiness–whatever that means–and some say that life has no meaning at all, and we make it up as we go along. As a matter of fact, we are living in a culture where that view is very, very popular. It is at least partially true that life has whatever meaning you give it. If you think life is about winning the Olympics, you might train for years to do so. Or if your life is about money, then you will spent most waking moments doing whatever is necessary to become wealthy. And whatever meaning you choose for your life will be your master. (SLOWLY) So you had better choose a kind master.
But we in this church profess that we are Christians–specifically Catholic Christians. That means that when we say the creed, and take communion, or say the Our Father, we are saying THAT is what life means. You can’t possibly come up and take communion, or profess in the ressurection of the dead and life everlasting amen, or say the words “our father” while placing something in higher priority over following your faith.
Let me make it even more simple. Either God is real or he is not. Either what Catholics say and do to worship him is true or it is not. If true, then the meaning of your life better be to serve him in the best way possible; and if all this is not true, then why are you here?
You know, just a little while ago I said that we all choose a meaning for our life. But what if that weren’t even mostly true? What if that meaning were chosen for us? I didn’t choose my parents or family, although I got a darned good one. I didn’t choose the time I would live, or my talents, or my social status. If there was a meeting called to decide all these things, I was not invited, and I find that fabulously annoying. And you know what? I didn’t really choose whether or not I was going to be a priest. I was chosen. I felt as if I was asked to do this by a power that I will never understand. Maybe that is a hint to the meaning of life. Maybe it’s not something that we find. Maybe it’s something that is given. Maybe that meaning isn’t found in us figuring it out, but instead in us listening intently to the one who created that life in the first place. Let me tell you a bit of wisdom that a little 8 year old named Andrew recently imparted to me: “Fr. Basil, Life is like a test that God gives you–if you listen close enough, he gives you the answers.”
Let me give you one of those answers: “I am the way, the truth and the Life. No one goes to the father but through me.”
I think we can begin our search for the meaning of life right there. The meaning of life is not in following a code or a certain set of laws. It isn’t in saying more prayers than the person next to you. It is in serving a person. A God who became a person to show us what it truly means to be a person. That person is Jesus Christ, and that is why we are called Christians. That means that a primary consideration for every day, if not every hour, of our lives should be, “How can I follow him more closely?” Because the one who follows him will look like him, and when that person enters heaven God will recognize those who look like his Son.
St. Paul says in the second reading, “You have died, and you are hidden with Christ in God.” As the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Many of us lead lives of quiet desperation,” but unlike Solomon, those lives can never be in vain. Our life itself is a riddle. Many of us only have a vague clue about why we were placed here in the first place based on the talents we have and the experiences that we’ve had. But maybe that’s the key. The key is having the faith that WE WERE PLACED HERE, and that the one who created the whole game, the whole playground–whatever you want to call it–has a reason for your existance and will judge its worthiness when you die and stand before him.
Why do you think that Pope Benedict declared this year a year of faith, and wrote an encyclical about it that was completed by Pope Francis? They see that the light of faith is growing dim in this world. Wherever there is faith, nothing can be meaningless. Nothing can be in vain. So whatever embers of faith still smoulder in your hearts, fan them until they become a flame. Remember those times you truly felt touched by God and write them down, and let that letter to yourself take you through dark nights.
God says to the man in the parable:
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”
Are your lives rich in what matters to God? If you are not, maybe God is waiting for you to ask Him for those gifts that enrich our lives in his eyes?
I would like to share with you a quote by Saint John Neuman:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.”
If I bear Christ in my body, it seems that a truly Christian life can’t be vain after all….