A reflection by Fr. Idara Otu, MSP, on Ecclesiastes 1.2-11
In September we witnessed the largest People’s Climate March in history, with about 300,000 people, and one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders where over 100 heads of state and 800 business leaders met to discuss and galvanize action for climate change. I hope all of these weren’t in vain.
The Book of Ecclesiastes begins and ends with the emphasis that all is vanity. Here, the Hebrew word that is translated as vanity means “breath, vapor, mist, emptiness, futility, fleeting.” When the author of Ecclesiastes wrote “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” it was meant to communicate the transitory nature of earthly living. The world is fleeting and life by itself has no meaning. The author further demonstrates this by emphasizing the visible cyclical changes within the earth: “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow there they continue to flow.” These and other ecological patterns contribute to earth’s self-sustainability.
In the last decade of the 21st century, through scientific studies, it has become increasingly evident that humans are a determining factor in the threat to the future well-being of the earth. Although we experience sunrise from the East and sunset in the West, the effect of the sun’s ultraviolent rays is felt more now than ever. Even though we may feel the wind blowing from the North to the South and vice versa, there are changes in wind direction contributing to warming temperatures. Though we see streams flowing into the sea, there is a rise in sea levels due to the thermal expansion of oceans and the melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps. All these climatic changes are precipitated by human actions and the inability of humans to live in communion with rest of the earth.
There is no doubt that the Book of Ecclesiastes is not meant to teach Christians about the scientific workings of the earth. But this reading offers insights on human relationship with the earth. It calls to mind that human life is transitory and meaningless without God. It reminds us of the limitations and vulnerability of humanity in the face of creation. The first reading is an invitation to lead a simple life and live in gratitude of God’s gift of the earth. This demands living in communion with the cyclical patterns of the earth and in a mutually enhancing manner that enable the earth to sustain these patterns. In this way, the recent unprecedented global solidarity for the entire well-being of the earth will not be in vain.