How many generations can you go back in your family? Do you know their names off the top of your head or do you need to look them up? “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” begins the book of Ecclesiastes. The use of vanity, according to the footnote in New American Bible translation, represents the Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme degree of futility and emptiness. For many, the fleetingness of life is being forgotten within our own family.
Listening to the Bible in a Year podcast as the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes were being read, I was hoping that as the book progressed, I would be able to understand what the author was saying. All I could glean from it was how depressing life is: it is worth nothing and no one is remembered. Yet Fr. Mike Schmitz’s comments that followed unpacked these chapters illustrating it is only in and through God that life makes sense. If life is only reduced to what we experience here and now and has no bearing after we complete our time on earth, then yes, life is nothing but vapor, fleeting and useless. However, if we live our life with the belief and guidance of God, then life does have a purpose and every choice has a meaning. Our ultimate end is whether we want to enjoy the after-life-on-earth within God’s presence or if we choose to turn our backs on Him.
I really enjoy hearing so much of the Bible read by Fr. Mike. There have been so many names that I would usually glaze over because I did not know how to pronounce them. But hearing those names made me realize just how many people have come before me. I wonder how long they lived; what their favorite food was; what was their favorite story around the fire at night? I think of how the names mentioned carried significance, like Joshua, son of Nun. Who was Nun and why was it so important to identify Joshua as being his son? Were there numerous men named Joshua that they identified the father to tell them apart? Some may say it was the beginning of having a family name, but if that were the case, why aren’t all the names mentioned in conjunction with the paternal relation? While in some areas of scripture, a family line may be traced, Joshua is mentioned specifically as the son of Nun in Deuteronomy (1:38 and 34:9), as well as at the beginning and end of the book of Joshua (1:1 and 24:29). Perhaps Nun was an ordinary man, who lived a life of faith in God that was so strong, he imparted it on his son who was then able to lead the Israelites into the promised land. Nun may not have had the great actions of Moses or even his son, but his ordinary faithfulness was rewarded by God since he is never forgotten as long as the Bible is read.
There is great power in naming things after people. I remember when I first moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia and kept hearing DeKalb mentioned. There were several renditions of DeKalb used in naming the area roads. It wasn’t until I visited a portrait gallery in the Independence Hall area of Philadelphia that I realized why that name was so important: he was an officer in the Continental Army of the American Revolutionary War. Just like Nun, we may not remember what DeKalb did in the fight for independence, but his name has lived on and used on a daily basis each time mail is delivered to a house on one of many streets that bear his name.
I see the finger of God at hand through the ages that aligns the reading of Ecclesiastes with the celebration of the Memorial Day weekend in the United States. From the Revolutionary War to the present day conflicts in the Middle East and to all places where our troops are deployed, we take a moment to not only lift up to God those we know who give their life for their country, but also those whose names are known only in heaven. Life may be fleeting and we may be forgotten within a generation or two, yet if we live a God-centered life, we look forward to seeing God after we breathe our last. Perhaps we will spend all eternity meeting those who have preceded us — those within the family of God, and even those who come after us!