Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. In a few moments, these words will be spoken over you as I ash your foreheads or your hands. Tonight, I have one question for us: What might it mean for us to receive these words as a blessing, as a word from God meant to bring us comfort and hope?
I’ve done something in today’s service that I almost never do. I’ve gone rogue. We are off lectionary. We’ve heard a number of readings already from the book of Ecclesiastes, a book rarely heard in church these days. Why Ecclesiastes, you might be asking. It seems like an odd book to turn to given that Kohelet, the author, seems to be jaded, world-weary individual who laments the pointlessness of it all. His repeated refrain is meaningless, meaningless, or vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Life is just chasing the wind. Where are we to find hope in such a text as this? To understand what Kohelet is up to, we have to understand that his entire book is a midrash, a commentary on the first few chapters of Genesis. His book is a long discussion on what it means for us to be people of the dust. How joy is only possible if we embrace the fragile and ephemeral nature of life.
As I just mentioned, the pronouncement which stands over the entire book is the word hevel. Appearing nearly 40 times in twelve chapters, this word is traditionally translated as meaningless or vanity. And the prevalence of this one word can easily lead us to perceive Kohelet as a cynic, as a depressed and grumpy old man. However, I don’t believe that to be the case. Instead, I see him as a realist, one who looks at the world and the actions of human beings in disgust and disbelief.
For while hevel can be translated as vanity or meaningless, these are only approximate translations. One modern commentator renders it as absurdity, which I find more helpful. Kohelet is struck and appalled by the total disparity between what should happen in a well ordered world and what actually does happen. He is appalled at all the delusions which hold so many of us captive. He shakes his head at the absurdity of our pretensions to uniqueness and our expectations of lasting fame or enduring achievement.
What Kohelet condemns as hevel is the depraved affection and desire of us humans who are never content with being creatures of God. Instead we are always anxious and concerned with accumulating riches, honors, glory and fame, as if we are going to live here forever. Meanwhile, we become bored with the things which we have and continuously yearn for other things, and then still others. It’s absurd how we act especially when life passes so quickly away.
This leads me to another association of this word hevel which we often miss in English. The word appears once in the Bible as the name of an individual. The title of my sermon gives it away. Hevel is actually the Hebrew spelling of the name Abel. And if you remember, Abel is the young chap, the son of Adam and Eve who enters the biblical story only to die young and senselessly. He was the first human being to die and he died for no good reason.
As I said earlier, Kohelet has mediated long and hard on the first few chapters of Genesis. His book echoes Genesis’ message of our inescapable mortality: “everything returns to the dust.” In light of this, when Kohelet states that everything or everyone is absurd, what he also saying is that every one of us is Abel. By doing this, Kohelet is not trying to persuade us of the sentimental and ultimately cruel belief that every death or really any death makes sense. Rather, by invoking Abel, he reminds us that death is at every moment a possibility for all of us. Therefore he wants us to not live foolishly and be unprepared that the reality of death might come at any moment. As Kohelet reminds us: “The advantage of human beings over animals – it is non-existent! Everyone is Abel! Everyone goes to one place. Everyone was from the dust and everyone returns to the dust!”
By now you all are probably scratching your heads wondering how in the world any of this is hopeful? How is this good news? What does any of this have to do with the season of Lent?
Well for all Kohelet’s discussion on Abel, on death and absurdity, never once does he dismiss the possibility of joy. In fact, joy is ultimately what preoccupies him. And the wisdom which Kohelet comes to understand is that the more we embrace the absurdity of life and the reality of death, the more capable we are to embrace the truth that we are merely created creatures. And this is what enables us to experience the joy God intends for us. For Kohelet, joy and hevel are complementary.
This is why the only word which appears almost as often as hevel in the book, is the word give. It appears almost 30 times and most often, the one who gives is God. What Kohelet aims throughout the entire book is instill in his students and in us the ability to receive the pleasures of life as the gift they are and to recognize God as the sole Giver. What he wants more than anything is to help people live into our humanity. And to help us gain a more earth-bound focus. For this he understands we must learn how to live with open hands, we must learn to be creatures of humility, creatures of the dust – for humility derives from the word humus after all, from the dirt. We must learn to receive life as a pure gift. To do this, we must stop treating life as something which we can possess, which we can master. We must stop treat life as something which we can shape to conform to our desires. Instead, we must be stripped of all the absurd illusions which hold us captive and be reminded that we are just dust so that we can pause to recognize the gifts which we receive every day which come to us from God.
We don’t know who exactly Kohelet was. We do know that Ecclesiastes was written very late, during the rabbinic period, when Jerusalem had already become a sophisticated Hellenstic city. The author’s words seem to be addressed to young men with “good prospects,” to Jews who had assimilated well enough to Greek society to know enough philosophy so that they could make a name for themselves in business, politics, and culture. In other words, the book is addressed to people of privilege, the up and comers, the future movers and shakers of the ancient Jewish world. And Kohelet appears to have been one of their teachers.
And this makes Kohelet unique of all the Old Testament books, for he is speaking to people like us: extremely responsible, moderately religious folk who are perpetually anxious to the do the right thing. Kohelet understands us because he is one of us. One who strove for great achievements and tried to make sense of everything, who longed to secure the future against disaster and the system against injustice. And after a lifetime of trying, Kohelet came to understand just how futile such endeavors are. They are something we can never wholly achieve and that places us in grave danger – of hating life, of succumbing to hopelessness and depression, of seeing life as chasing after the wind.
So to the perpetually anxious, Kohelet offers the healthful asceticism of letting go of our vain pretense to determine the future and instead focusing resolutely on the present, receiving both the pleasures and the opportunities it offers with open hands. For joy is something which cannot be coerced; it can only be received. In the words of Kohelet: “This is what I myself have seen to be good, yes, beautiful: to eat and drink and take pleasure in all the toil with which one toils under the the sun the number of days of life which God has given one … To accept one’s lot and to rejoice in one’s toil – this, it is the gift of God (5:17-18).
This Lent, I challenge you all to be like Kohelet, always on the look-out for joy. Take time to enjoy the sensual pleasures of life. Spend time cultivating intimate relationships of friendship and love. Remember that finding joy in life is a genuinely religious form of humility. One that depends on us stop trying to master life and instead receives the present as a gift from our Creator.
The absurdity of life which Kohelet attests is that joy is only found when we learn again how to lose ourselves. When we stop trying to take ourselves too seriously. When we understand that we are not nearly in control of life as we’d like. That we are not nearly as important as we like to think we are. When we recognize that ultimately all of us are Abel.
Let us resolve to receive this season of Lent as a season of un-selfing. Let us get unstuck from a fixation of our own egos, our own accomplishments and desires, even our own best qualities. Instead let us remember that we are merely creatures of the dirt. And may this help us to receive the present as a gift. For this is The way to life. The way to joy. The way to God.
Let me close with Kohelet’s closing words:
Remember your Creator, in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come,
and the years arrive when you will say “I have no delight in them…
and the dust returns to the earth as it was
and the breath returns to God who gave it
Absurdity of Absurdities said Kohelet,
Everyone is Abel. …
Fear God and keep his commandments
For this is every Adam – every human being.