Every Ash Wednesday, when I mark the cross with ashes on the foreheads of my parishioners, I say, “From ashes you have come, to ashes you will return.” It is not something I say lightly or easily. I wish I could say something more upbeat. “Here’s a cool sign of the cross for your forehead!” But those are not the words of the liturgy. “From ashes you have come, to ashes you will return.
I say those words year after year to remind us of our mortality. We will all die one day. So what do we make of the days we have?
In order to face eternity, I believe we have to face our mortality first. In order to live a fulfilling life, we must first understand the futility of life. In order to understand God, we first have to understand who we are as human beings. In order to understand the resurrection, the message of Easter, we first have to understand death, the message of Lent.
So this Lent I am inviting you to join me in some hard work. I want us to work on what it means to be human. We are going to do this by working through one of the hardest and most puzzling books of the entire Bible—the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is unlike any other book of the Bible. It never mentions an afterlife. It has a very abstract concept of God. It is much more philosophical than any other biblical book. And it is primarily about death and the absurdity of life. Someone once said that Ecclesiastes describes life as a crapshoot, and a biblical scholar, Rabbi Rami Shapiro replied that in a crapshoot you have a chance to win. “No one wins in Ecclesiastes, not even the house.” The message of Ecclesiastes resonates with the songwriter Jackson Browne, who wrote, “somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go/May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know.”
And yet Ecclesiastes is a part, and I would argue an essential part of the biblical witness. Scholars have questioned why, but the fact is, they think Ecclesiastes became an accepted part of the Bible quicker than any other book of the Old Testament. Go figure.
Every day in Lent I have chosen a reading from Ecclesiastes for you. I warn you in advance, these will not be easy. It’s not that they are hard to understand. Actually the writing itself is plain and simple. It’s only hard because it makes us think about hard things, things we would rather not think about. It leads us to ponder questions about life and death, and the meaning of life, and how random things happen to us—and that they happen a lot.
I will be posting every day during Lent (one of my Lenten commitments) for the next forty days, not counting Sundays. (Sundays are not counted as part of the forty days of Lent.
One more thing—the text I am using is not from any one translation of the Bible. I am using several translations, and merging them together. I am pulling primarily from the NRSV, which is the version we read from every Sunday morning, but I am using the work of several Hebrew scholars, and taking advantage of the wealth of translations out. On occasion I make my own call concerning a few Hebrew words.
So, without further ado, let’s start.