Ecclesiastes is a book in the Hebrew Bible (and Christian Old Testament) that I often find is only taken off the shelf for funerals and for other times of difficulties in our lives. Today’s scripture passage, for example, is often read at graveside burials. Its popularity at such times of grief makes it almost commonplace, easily recitable for half a verse or so, and then just as easily discarded as a well-known cliché or over-rehearsed platitude.
Many times, however, we forgot how clichés, platitudes, and common readings are become such because of their intense suitability for the matter at hand.
In the case of today’s reading, it is far too easy to dismiss it as “well intentioned and overheard nonsense,” but if we do so, we lose the beauty and the wisdom our Bible passage can offer to us. We must look at what a text actually says and see that there might be a broader meaning. We must look for the truth lost within well-recited words and, perhaps, we might realize there’s a truth and meaning beyond the one Ecclesiastes 3 has been pigeon-holed into over centuries of common Christian practice.
A Bit on Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes falls under the category of “wisdom literature”—or readings and texts that are meant to impart truths and wisdoms to the reader. This was a popular genre in the Near East at the time Ecclesiastes was codified (between 400 and 200 BC) and a well-respected form of literature. The Book of Ecclesiastes is also filled with poetry, which even in translation gives the words a sense of beauty in its metaphors.
The title “Ecclesiastes” may, of course, be confusing to many English-speaking Christians. We have no context for the title outside of the Bible, and even then it might prove confusing. What is an Ecclesiastes anyway? Was it a group of philosophers who got together to come up with “wise” sayings? Was it a secret religious word lost to time? Does it mean something else entirely?
Well, to answer those questions (even if you never thought about it), Ecclesiastes is a name—in translation. More specifically, Ecclesiastes is a transliteration of the Greek name for the book, Ekklesiastes, which itself is a translation of a person’s name: Kohelet. Now, before you scrunch your eyebrows together—no, it’s not a name that’s really survived into modern American culture. The name, after all, is a Hebrew name that never proved as popular as “Joshua” or “Hannah” or “Esther” or “John,” just to give a few quick examples. Kohelet (or the Kohelet of Ecclesiastes) was, in fact, one of the sons of King David (and brother to King Solomon, known for his wisdom) – and is the supposed author of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Although commentators dispute the actual author and origins of Ecclesiastes, the book’s name would have lent the idea of wisdom to its verses (Kohelet being the brother of Solomon) and divine blessing (being the son of David). Also, by carrying the name of the son of King David Ecclesiastes established itself as a legitimate religious text. Moreover, the poetry found within the book might remind readers of the Psalms (historically credited to King David) even if the tone of the book is very different.
The wisdom in Ecclesiastes is wrapped in beautiful Hebrew poetry, that has managed to find its way into many of its English translations.
“For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)—how often have we said that to ourselves when life is particularly difficult to shoulder? How often have these words comforted us in our times of loss?
The answer forming in your mind is proof that these words have endured and will continue to do so for many centuries to come…
First off, This is Not a Funeral
Although Ecclesiastes 3 is common at funerals, it is also perfect for the changing of one year to another and has a special poignancy as we close out 2020.
These words assure us that everything has a time, everything has a place and, in the cliché and common phrase, “this too shall pass.”
Whatever has gone ahead, is now over.
Whatever pain we have suffered, shall come to an end.
Whatever isolation we have felt, will soon be over, if we only trust in God.
Whatever we have lost—it cannot be replaced, but we shall be comforted in this loss.
Nothing is so horrible that it shall not end.
Nothing is too treacherous that it cannot be overcome.
God gives us the gift of change, the gift of improvement, the gift of opposites. When we have known bad, we find good. When we have known pain, we find spiritual comfort. When we have known fear and hatred, we come to understand peace.
If we trust in God, then we know that even if we cannot put an exact date to it, or time it to the second, our lives and our world will get better.
Although the words are melancholic in Ecclesiastes 3, they are certainly filled with tendrils of hope. It’s not the type of hope that moves mountains or blinds us in our ecstatic joy, but a softer hope, a softer peace. Where in other parts of the Bible you might expect angels to appear in the heavens and start singing (I know many of our minds are still on Christmas), the hope of promise and change in Ecclesiastes is more like a well-worn sweater you forgot you had, and when you put it on and inhale deeply, you smell the love of past years and joy of half-forgotten memories.
Is one more the miracle than the other? If something is quiet and understated, does it mean that God’s hand is not at work in the world?
Janus, the two-faced god
Before moving forward (no pun intended), I want to take the briefest of moments to talk about the origins of “the New Year”—although I could probably write over a thousand pages on the subject.
In Christianity, our new year begins at Advent, when we mark light returning into the world and anticipate the Coming of Christ (who is the Light itself). As such, for Christians, the New Year technically began on November 29th in 2020.
For those of Celtic origins, the New Year begins on the day when the veil between this world and the next is the thinnest—which roughly falls around October 31st, of Halloween. With the slumber of the world, moving into winter, we not only experience “death” but the hope of “rebirth” in Spring.
For those who follow the Roman Calendar (which we in the Western World do), the New Year is marked with the first day of the month of Janus, the two-faced god. Janus simultaneously looks back on the old year and forward into the new one, embodying the duality of nostalgia and future hope that so many of us feel. Our month “January” is named for Janus, and was first proposed in the Julian calendar by none other than Julius Caesar.
In an attempt to “Christianize” a secular holiday, John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) started the tradition of Watch Night on New Year’s Eve. At this time, Christians praise the Lord, sing, and hold services on New Year’s Eve into the morning of the New Year, asking for God’s favor and blessings in the days to come. It gained new significance in the United States, as African Americans anticipated their emancipation on January 1, 1863, praising God for the freedom they would soon realize.
Moving on to 2021
From the thirty-first of December to the first of January, little may appear to change in the physical world. I’m sure the wind will still nip at your fingers when you leave the warmth of your home. I’m certain that the same frost will be covering your windshield. Chores left undone will not have magically done themselves. Emails and letters left unanswered in favor of hot cider or eggnog will still be there, waiting. Florence Congregational may still be virtual for a little while longer. Governments and officials will still be in place at least until later in January 2021. Policies will remain. The coronavirus vaccine will not be anywhere near ideal distribution level, and so we will all have to wear masks a few months longer.
However, change is in the air—whether for better or worse, it might be difficult to say.
But the seasons are changing, the world is turning, and God is quietly working among us.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… Be patient, my friends, and the seasons will shift again. God is with us—he never left—and he will remain an active (if invisible) force of our lives as we move into a brighter future.
Trust in the Lord and Stay Safe,
Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn