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The Everyday Prayer

printable version

Icon of the Holy Face
Church of Sant'Egidio, Rome

Reading of the Word of God

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

I am the good shepherd,
my sheep listen to my voice,
and they become
one flock and one fold.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

Ecclesiastes 1,2-11

Sheer futility, Qoheleth says. Sheer futility: everything is futile! What profit can we show for all our toil, toiling under the sun? A generation goes, a generation comes, yet the earth stands firm for ever. The sun rises, the sun sets; then to its place it speeds and there it rises. Southward goes the wind, then turns to the north; it turns and turns again; then back to its circling goes the wind. Into the sea go all the rivers, and yet the sea is never filled, and still to their goal the rivers go. All things are wearisome. No one can say that eyes have not had enough of seeing, ears their fill of hearing. What was, will be again, what has been done, will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun! Take anything which people acclaim as being new: it existed in the centuries preceding us. No memory remains of the past, and so it will be for the centuries to come -- they will not be remembered by their successors.


Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

Qoheleth (the "Teacher") is a pseudonym that conceals the author of these "words"; it could also be translated as "preacher." The term evokes the "assembly" (qahal), perhaps a religious assembly or a group of disciples, or more generically, the "people" (see 12:9). The beginning of the passage presents its most famous phrase: "All is vanity." The Hebrew word for vanity, "hebel", means "breath of wind." It is a metaphor for all of life, indeed, for all of reality, which is "like" a breath. The author of this book captures the fleetingness, the instability, the littleness, and the vanity that are woven through and make up all of human existence. And he adds that human life is made up of agonizing toil, labour, and responsibilities that wear out the body and the mind in hopes of gaining some kind of profit. But what is profit? He answers: "Nothing." He warns his reader not to think of life or work as the conquest of a "product": success is a "breath of wind." He is not trying to destroy the human desire to live or frustrate the search for happiness. Over the course of this little book, we will come up against a tragic vision of life, which passes like a breath of wind, despite our claims of strength and omnipotence. But at the same time life also appears as something beautiful. It is true, there is an exhausting coming and going of all things, and yet "there is nothing new under the sun" (v. 9). The creation - Ecclesiastes suggests - seems to be condemned to perpetual motion without any goal: a movement similar to that of the wind that comes and goes (v. 6). It is not the wind of the Spirit, who hovered over the waters in creation, nor the sweet wind of the theophany of Elijah on Sinai, nor the wind that "renews the face of the earth" the psalmist sings (Psalm 104.30). Now it is just a whirlwind that stirs up creation without a goal or end. With this image, the author emphasizes the radical limitations that define the actions of people and things. Immersed in this whirlpool of weakness, humanity cannot have the last word on anything: there is no end to discussions and understandings! All human speeches and theories are an incessant and endless searching: "All things are wearisome; more than one can express" (8). Everything is overwhelmed by instability, "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done" (v. 9), like an ephemeral whirlpool, where it is impossible for anything to be new and stable. Even the memory of the past fades. We are far from the psalmist who says: "The righteous...will be remembered for ever" (Ps 112:6). Both nature and humanity tell a monotonous story that repeats and starts over where it began, containing only words of toil and exhaustion, dissatisfaction and frustration: human eyes and ears are not satisfied by natural phenomena or human works (v.8). Even science does not grasp the deeper sense of history: it does not understand the transformations of things that do not lead to anything truly new or stable. If "what has been," natural phenomena, and "what has been done," (v. 9), human history, do not produce anything truly "new," how can we find the meaning, the "fulfilment," of this endless "circuit" (v. 6)? Everything still seems to be wrapped in non-sense. A resigned attitude might find a justification here. And people often say: nothing can be changed; everything is always the same. But the Teacher does not support an "eternal return of all things." Instead he hints there is an "end" of human existence, since God is the creator (12:1). But he does not speak of God directly. And in his he is close to Job. Only one thing is certain for the Teacher: nothing "new" (v. 9-10) can come from humanity. However, if we read this little book in the context of whole of Scripture, we realize that stability and the meaning of life flow from God. The prophets remind us of this: "I am about to do a new thing," the Lord says through Isaiah (43:19).

Memory of the Church