We all know the story of King David, recounted in the book of Samuel, and we all know about his son, Solomon, who is believed to have been the author of Ecclesiastes, the First Reading of today. Solomon had it all: riches, lands, wisdom, and fame, and yet he was a searching soul. In Ecclesiastes he tells us of his journey, and his search for what brings true happiness.
At first, Solomon thought that happiness was in pleasure; he focused his life on wine, parties, joy, and laughter, and we know of his sin of adultery. When it became apparent that this wasn’t cutting it, Solomon decided to enjoy and exploit his riches; he conquered lands, and amassed piles of gold and silver, and yet this too was not enough to satisfy him. Solomon began to search for happiness through wisdom and beauty. He made Jerusalem splendorous and beautiful; he rejoiced in art, singing, beautiful gardens, pools, fountains, and great vineyards. Eventually, at the end of this long search for happiness, he reached his final conclusion, which we hear in today’s reading: “All is vanity!” says Solomon. “Vanity of vanities” (Eccl 1:2).
Now, the word used for “vanity” in Hebrew, hebel, is also translated as vapor, breath, or air; some also translate it as “bubble.” Everything is “bubbles.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been mesmerized by looking at a bubble, if you’ve been absorbed by its size, its perfect roundness, and the changing colors of refracted light. If you have you will know that just when you’re starting to enjoy it, “poof,” it bursts leaving behind only a mist that quickly dissolves. Like Solomon, we are chasing bubbles when we could be seeking what will truly bring us satisfaction.
In Hollywood, in the business world, and in the highest echelons of “success”, there is often a sensation of vacuity, and emptiness. Several years ago, I had the blessing to spend New Year’s Eve with my family in San Francisco. The whole city was in mourning because a great comedian, who used to live in San Francisco, had just taken his life. We happened to drive past his house that day, and I remember thinking to myself: Say you amass millions of dollars in your bank account. You can go wherever you want in the world. You don’t have to work. You can buy anything you want: any car, any house, any boat. You have everything. You wake up on a Tuesday morning, and what do you do? What is your drive? What is your purpose? In the first reading, Solomon tells us that when he lived only for the things of the world, his heart was full of anxiety, sorrow, and grief. “Even at night,” he says, his heart is “not at rest” (Eccl 2:23).
Have you ever thought about improving your audio system back at home? Maybe you go to the store to start looking at speakers; you see some small ones you think would be good enough. Then the shop assistants start their spiel: “If you’re gonna invest that amount of money, you might as well get these three foot long speakers. That’s quality! And if you’re gonna get these speakers, you’ll want the new 109-inch flatscreen TV. It’s gorgeous, gorgeous.” You think about it for a moment, “Sure,” you say, “might as well.” But the shop assistants won’t stop yet: “If you’re getting a large TV, you gotta go high-def 4K! And for just a bit more you can have the 3D version of the TV!” Before you know it, you are back at home with your new shiny purchases. You plug in your Xbox, your Playstation, and your speakers, you put on your 3D glasses, and you sit yourself down in front of 2,344 channels of television. And… you are bored, not to mention angry that the newer and better versions of your new purchases have already been released.
Bored. In 1998, an estimated nineteen million Americans were prescribed antidepressants; in 2015 it had doubled to forty two million. This phenomenon is now being calling by some the “medicalization of misery.” Many people certainly do suffer from clinical depression, a terrible illness, but perhaps just as many are suffering from a chronic “Gospel depression.” Like Solomon, many of us have put their hopes in the perishable things of the world, with the expectation that these goods will somehow satisfy our infinite longing, and the yearnings of our hearts. But they cannot. Our hearts remain thirsty, and the bubbles burst in front of our eyes, leaving us empty, anxious, and saddened.
In the Gospel, Jesus uses a very strong word to upbraid a rich man, who places his hopes in big barns and a plentiful harvest: “You fool!” Jesus say to him. “Life will be demanded of you tonight” (Lk 2:20). This is the only time Jesus uses the word “fool.” Even when speaking to the Pharisees he refrains from using this word, so why does he call this man a fool? We might assume that Jesus disapproved of the man’s greed and ambition, for the gosple tells us that he was already rich, and yet kept accumulating more and more wealth. In fact, the problem was not that this man was too ambitious, or that he wanted too much, on the contrary, he was not ambitious enough. The rich man had focused his gaze on the bubbles, the pettiness, and the withering things of life, this was what made him a fool. The gospel tells us that because this man was not rich in what matters to God, then he could not know true riches, or true glory. This is the truth that Solomon learned, and that he teaches us, that what truly makes us happy is the wisdom of the heart that comes from following God.
There is one thing we know for sure: one day you and I are going to die. One day, our heart will beat for the last time, and we will exhale our last breath; we will enter that stillness and silence, and we will give our soul back to our Creator. We all want to believe that this will happen in a distant future. We constantly maintain the illusion that death is far away: ten, thirty, or sixty years down the road, and that death has no connection with the plans I have for this evening, for this week, or even for my life. We let death become hypothetical. And yet Death is the only thing that we can be certain will happen in our lives. “Life will be demanded of you,” Jesus said to the rich man, and, like the rich fool, we must make sense of death in order to make sense of life and it’s demands.
When Our Creator gave us the call, the vocation to live, he also gave us the call, the vocation, to give it back to Him, he also will call us to die. This gives us a unique perspective of our lives. We are called to give our souls, our bodies, and our entire being, back to our Heavenly Father. From this perspective, the perspective of eternity, everything else is bubbles, popping and disappearing at random. When we live with the knowledge that we will die, and that we could die at any time, we truly begin to appreciate the depth of our life as a continuous creation, a continuous gift from Our Creator. YOLO, short for “You Only Live Once,” has become a popular acronym, and it’s exactly right! As Christians, we know that because we “only live once,” that we have to get it right. We know that life is not a matter of leisure, and that a happy life is not a matter of having the “stuff,” the “likes,” “the body,” or even good health. Life is a matter of truth and wisdom of heart. Only a person who knows how to live, knows how to die, and only a person who knows how to die, knows how to truly live.
How do we do this? How do we find the wisdom of God, and the wisdom of heart? Saint Paul says in the Second Reading, “Put your old self to death. That part of you that is earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desires, greed, that is idolatry” (Col 3:5) Idolatry is defined as something that we want us to fill us like only God can, this could be material possessions, or something more abstract, like an idea, a person, or a relationship. If that person is not God, it cannot hold; this is idolatry.
“Guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (Lk 12:15),
Luke calls us to guard ourselves, because we live in the world, and are surrounded by many good things. These things are not inherently bad: desires are good, money is good, and pleasure is good, but when we demand that they satisfy us in a way that only God can, then they will always fall short, for they are vanities. Paul continues, and extols us to, “Seek what is above” (Col 3:1) Here Paul points to the true riches in our life. “Think what is above.” And yet, so many times we find it much easier to think and to seek what is “below,” what is here and now, the proximate, the immediate. When we believe that that is what gives us fulfillment, we will be confronted over and over again by a great emptiness in our heart. Paul challenges us to, “Put on Christ.” And it should be so. Let us put on Christ. Let us put on the virtues of Christ, the thoughts of Christ, and the feelings of Christ. Let us put on the dreams, the ambitions, and the wants of Christ. If we want to think of what is above, and guard ourselves from what is below, then we must put on Christ.
Let us ask the blessed Virgin Mary, Seat of Wisdom, to show us wisdom of heart, the wisdom to see worldly things, and heavenly things for their true value; may she show us how to put on Christ, how to strive, how to elevate our gaze to the riches of heaven, and how to think of what is above, as she ponders all things in the silence of her heart.
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