Finding the Sacredness of Creation in the Ashes
Discussions of lent will often cite this single verse: “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20).
Ecclesiastes (Greek: Ἐκκλησιαστής, Ekklēsiastēs, Hebrew: קֹהֶלֶת, qōheleṯ), known in Hebrew as Qoheleth, is a marvelous work of literature. It’s poetry and prose present us with the musings of a wise man, a king, a son of David. The author is unknown, but the author writing somewhere in the time frame of 450 – 200 B.C.E. invents the narrating character of Qoheleth to give voice to a series of theological musings that range from pessimistic to hopeful. So we find pessimistic musings such as “Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:12) to the optimistic sentiment (“Light is sweet and it is pleasant to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7). The books conclusion seems to be represented in the passages from 11:1 to 12:8 which sums things up: “…and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, all is vanity.” That same thematic postulate is clearly present at the outset of the work as well: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4).
While Ecclesiastes 3:20 is often used as the basis for the symbolic use of ashes on Ash Wednesday it is indeed a profound metaphor throughout the Lenten season, it is useful I believe to see 3:20 in its immediate context for it contains a surprising nod to an enduring principle.
First, we should note that the third chapter begins with the most famous of passages from this writing:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
The context of 3:20 seems to be within a series of musings on the futility of life and the inevitability of death, on the vanity of supposing one can understand it all. But what is the larger point being made immediately prior to 3:20?
For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 3:19)
One can make the point that the author of Ecclesiastes, in pondering the meaning of life in the face of the inevitability of death, contributes a valuable thought to our enduring principle: sacredness of creation. While it is likely widely assumed on Ash Wednesday that the passage contains an implied “people” in its meaning, “All [people] go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again” This is clearly not so from the context. The implication should be understood as “All [both people and animals] go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
So here in the cavernous beginning of Lent, we find that context points us to an enduring principle, namely Sacredness of Creation. Part of the vanity seen in the Qoheleth is the vanity of thinking that we are superior to animals. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes points us to respect for creation for “all go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Is it vanity to find such meaning? Perhaps, and Ecclesiastes is not a mainstream Old Testament writing, to be sure. Contemplating the contextual meanings of our Lenten journey together, I choose to find reassurance and support for the theological soundness of our enduring principle, indeed a means by which to give flesh to its meaning. Let us not fall victim to vanity, may this Lenten season help us to find a path to honor the sacredness of creation. The meaning of the word all has theological and ethical consequence. I look forward to our Sunday evening service when together we will hear a testimony from retired Apostle Susan Oxley on our theme: “Sacredness of Creation.” (Glenn Johnson)