18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 4, 2013

I hope you won’t be upset if I make fun, just a little, of one of the quirkier aspects of the church building here at All Saints. The Tabernacle is located in a separate chapel as a result of the desire to be faithful to the text of the instructions about Mass. Those instructions say that the Altar, not the Tabernacle, should be the center of attention during Mass. For this reason, many churches have moved the Tabernacle from a location centered behind the Altar to a side altar or a Chapel of Reservation.

Here, at All Saints, the Chapel of Reservation is across the hallway, outside the worship space. Distributing Holy Communion during Mass requires the volunteer Sacristan to retrieve a ciborium from the Tabernacle, but get it back there before the ministers’ procession out of church at the end of Mass. By placing the Tabernacle in a place difficult to access, the Tabernacle actually becomes overly and noticeably present during Mass.

The elaborate, and time consuming, process of bringing a ciborium to the altar, and then taking it back again, makes the Tabernacle more present than it would be if it was located in the worship space. This is what philosophy calls “presence by means of absence.” It’s also a good illustration of the inadvisability of following the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is more faithful to the intent of those who formulated the law.

The first reading this Sunday makes two things very present by means of absence. Neither Christian hope nor Christian faith are mentioned, or even alluded to, by the first reading. They are, however, unmistakably present by their absence.

The first reading is taken from a surprisingly depressing text of Scripture. It has been said that the book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as the bad news that has to be heard first in order to hear the Good News of the Jesus’ preaching. This means that one has to come to terms with the normal limitations of life in order to see the value of the God’s promise of eternal salvation. This perspective might be based on a very simplistic notion of conversion and faith, but it’s worth our consideration.

Ecclesiastes describes the normal attachment to material things that every person experiences, an attachment that is necessary for conducting one’s life. Ecclesiastes’ depressing tone is the result of the failure to see the material not as an end in itself, but as a door through which to pass to the spiritual. Qoheleth, the author of the book, creates a dichotomy between the material and the spiritual, and in doing so, loses proper perspective on both.

Material things are neither bad, in themselves, nor good, in themselves. Rather, they are contingent. They are temporally contingent in the sense that they do not last forever. Ecclesiastes says, “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property.” (2:21) This describes every person’s life and accomplishments; at the end of our lives, someone else gets to enjoy the things we worked so hard to attain.

Ecclesiastes goes on for several chapters whining about the obvious: that nothing (in this world), lasts forever. We work, we toil, we save up riches (like the foolish man in the Gospel parable), and all of the products of our work go to someone else; ultimately, they are lost to us. This temporal contingency, the fact that they do not last forever, makes material things less than fully satisfying regardless of the volume of material things we possess.

We also see reflected in Ecclesiastes’ clinical depression the fact that material things are contingent in a moral sense, that is, they have a limited value. Qoheleth asks a rhetorical question, “What profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22) The implication is that we tend to overvalue things, or more to the point, the things we value are incapable of living up to the high value we put on them.

Any person of faith will find Qoheleth’s complaining to be more than a little one-sided. It is certainly true that all people, regardless of the presence or absence of religious faith, find material things to be good but only contingently so. We should give Qoheleth some credit for telling the truth, but his version of the truth is as contingent and unsatisfying as the contingent goods of this world.

Ecclesiastes describes human existence, but not completely. There is another aspect to our existence that is not mentioned in this book, but that we automatically think of because it is not mentioned. Qoheleth’s complaining brings to mind two things that are obvious to people of faith: there is something in this world that might last forever, and secondly, the most important things in life don’t necessarily have to be lost in death. The genius of Christian hope and faith is emphasized by their absence from Qoheleth’s musings.

The Letter to the Colossians says that those who are baptized into Christ’s death have lives that are “hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) The baptized, if they remain faithful to their baptismal promises, will share in Christ’s glory when he returns. (Col 3:4) Baptism offers us hope that the life we begin in this world can last eternally in the next. The fulfillment of that hope depends on our practice of the Christian faith.

The baptism ritual, by itself, is no more of a guarantee of salvation than are material possessions. The letter to the Colossians, and Jesus himself, tell us that the forgiveness and life offered in baptism have to be lived out daily in our actions and choices. The author of Colossians wrote, “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” (Col 3:5) Jesus said that we must grow “rich in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:21) A baptized person who does not fulfill their baptismal vows has a life devoid of hope and faith. In this sad case, hope and faith are present by means of absence, and that person’s baptism has been emptied of its potential.

We do have a choice about what we surrender to death, when the time comes. That choice is made by the manner in which we live. We can have lives that are as pathetic as the whining of Ecclesiastes, or we can have lives that will be raised up in Christ. (Col 3:1) It is important to keep in mind, however, that the choice is not made by our talking or claiming; it is made by our living.

Ecclesiastes spends quite a bit of talk, ink and wind in lamenting the sad state of life in this world. In the end, even Qoheleth’s reflections are themselves “vanity of vanities.” (Eccl 1:2) Talk is cheap; actions tell the truth. To have a life that is hidden (now) with Christ, and will be revealed with Christ when he returns in glory, requires that we live that life of practical faith now.

Material wealth and personal accomplishments don’t last long enough to offer us eternal salvation. The intention to be a faithful Catholic has even less duration than material things, unless we put that intention into practice daily. When our lives give visible witness to our claims of faith we have, in the Cross, a bridge from this life into eternity.

The Scriptures tell us that in the absence of daily faithfulness to God, life is emptiness and vanity. Anything less than a life of faithful discipleship is less than a life, but a life of daily practice of the Faith is life eternal.