Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
All things are vanity! Futile, wasted, useless. All things. Everything. Everyone. Looking squint-eyed into an endless summer morning, ruled first thing by asphalt-thawing heat, concrete-sweating humidity, and the knowing-despair that tomorrow and tomorrow in some mildewed future are already hotter and wetter than today will ever be—yes, easily we believe, “all things are vanity,” futile and mean against our best dreams for big tubs of ice, great bursts of dry Yankee air, and the chilly settling mists of October. And the Preacher, Qoheleth, himself as welcomed as a warm, moist blanket of wool in our Texas days of August, asks the question we have asked ourselves many times: “For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?” I work. I worry. I tear my body down, pushing uphill against chance, accident; defending against thieves and swindlers; dodging disaster one day, one day, one day; grieving my losses, celebrating my small wins, hoping for the more and the better that comes to me and mine, shaking, hesitating; and then: I die, abandoning it all to storage, to shiny new barns; fresh, newly anxious faces and smooth, eager hands; supplying the future’s hearts and minds with the fodder for fret and worry. What is the point?
Paul writes to the Colossians: “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above…For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” Do you hear Paul telling you to despise your life now? To turn away from your daily living—sleeping, eating, being friendly, raising kids?—is the great Apostle telling you to hate the body and its dirty but necessary functions? There is no salvation from the vanities of living in the hatred of life, in the despising of nature—all the good nouns and verbs of our Father’s Very Good Creation! We do not win a single race, not one contest against futility when we surrender one of our best means of knowing and loving God: knowing and loving His creatures, His creation.
Living among all the true, good, and beautiful things of our world, Paul warns us against the pride of believing that we rule here; that we hold the earth in its orbit and polish the glitter of the stars; that we breathe out the atmosphere, feed the trees, stoke the heat of summer and spring and make the leaves brown in autumn and the mist white in winter. We are warned against the greed of self-importance, the avarice of carving idols of our needs and wants and then shaping ourselves in the images and likenesses of what we unwisely think we most desire: full bellies, stuffed pockets, muddled minds, tranquilized hearts. Idol worshipers become their idols. And suffer their fate: the fires of the trash heap. This is foolishness! This is vanity!
In fact, it is worse than folly and vanity; it is deceit, lying. Paul writes: “[…]since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed […] in the image of its creator […] Stop lying to one another […].” We say we are reborn in baptism. That we have died with Christ and risen again in new light and in his glory. Do we look reborn? Do we work and love and fight and have kids and battle disease and learn and grow and win and lose and eat and sleep—do you do all of your living and your dying…reborn in Christ? If not, then truly, for you, all things are vanity; all of your days are sorrow and grief. A great misfortune.
The German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, writing in 1905 in his collection, The Book of Hours, his love-poems to God, talks to God about His people: “Lord, the great cities are lost and rotting./Their time is running out…./The people there live harsh and heavy,/crowded together, weary of their own routines. […] Their dying is long/and hard to finish: hard to surrender/what you never received./Their exit has no grace or mystery./It’s a little death, hanging dry and measly/like a fruit inside them that never ripened.” Lost. Rotting. Harsh. Heavy. Crowded. Long, hard death—a little death. Dry. Measly. Lives like fruit never ripened. Is this the limit of the bounty we are called to in Christ Jesus? Is this the scarce basket of harvest? Is this what we get for our faith in Him, our hope in His promises, our love for Him and one another? Won’t you be glad to die after this misadventure, this funny little tragedy you have lived? Stop lying to yourself! You have taken off your old self and put on Christ, so that “when Christ your life appears, then you will appear with him in glory. Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly”—your defiance of God’s will for you; your double-bound heart (whom do you serve?); your restless obsessions and compulsions; your need for vengeance, dominance, worldly success and admiration—any and every desire that is not a painful longing for God; take an axe to your idols—cultural celebrity, war at any cost, peace at any cost, your love of being owed something; burn the idols you have carved to your public image, to your duty and logic, to your safe loves and your tourist soul: “Jesus Christ” is the ONLY name given under God’s heaven for our salvation.
God said to the fool: “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Who gets the house, the safety deposit box, the cars, the jewelry, the bonds and the stock; who gets the property, the art collection, the dogs; who gets the silver, the furs, the cash? Who gets the grain and those shiny new barns? Who gets the anxiety, the vanity, the worry and fret? Better yet: who wants to hope, to love, to trust? To live free in the spirit of re-creating life? Who wants the treasure of a perfect vision of God? Who wants to store up riches in Christ Jesus? To spend the merits of heaven on mercy for the world? Who wants to run after God while He chases after you?
“Christ is all and in all” and you must find your life in Christ. Otherwise, what is the point? Let me be more direct: otherwise, what is your point? What is the point of You? If you have been raised with Christ, then run after what true knowledge, true success, true treasure. You can stand in your yard and curse the heat, the humidity, the sweat and tears of dogging your days in vain labor. You can. Or, you can change that vanity into a Christ-purpose, a godly goal of making yourself into a preacher of the gospel right where God has put you. You can die and leave the world your heart—small and measly, an unripened fruit—and we can forget you in your stored-up miserliness—your name on all those barns becomes an address. Or, you can leave us your life, generously lived as Christ among us, an image of the Son worthy of his Father!
You and I, we are called to a glory greater than creation and it is unworthy of our baptismal vows, our love for God and one another, to carve idols, to wallow in despair, to shout vainly at vanity, and to store-up against God’s generosity. So, stop lying! You have put off the old self and put on the new. Therefore, tell the truth: show us Christ!