One of the main principles of the Buddhist tradition is impermanence. We are ever in a flowing river, one where all things pass and where security and comfort can never be fully grasped. The Christian tradition also recognises the impermanence of our lives on earth, even the earth itself. “It is God who clothes the wild grass – grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, burned up in the oven.” (Luke 12:28, GNT)
“Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun? One generation departs and another generation comes, but the world forever stays. The sun rises and the sun sets; then it presses on to the place where it rises.
“What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun! Even the thing of which we say, ‘See, this is new!’ has already existed in the ages that preceded us. There is no remembrance of past generations nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them.” (v. 2-5, 9-11, NAB)
So what is the purpose of our toil? Is it vanity since we are impermanent beings on this earth for such a short time? And what does Qoheleth mean that “nothing is new”?
It may seem depressing to acknowledge that in as little as one hundred years all the people on the earth right now will have been replaced with new people. It really is a short time we’re here, and so what is the purpose of our daily toil, our working, our going from here to there? Is it vanity? Is it just to make ourselves look good or to fulfil some warped definition of success? Perhaps that all we do is for naught since, as Qoheleth says, future generations will not remember us.
I think the constancy that the scripture passage refers to is God. As Christians, we are indeed restless until we rest in God. Our world is an ever-flowing stream of impermanence and we can indeed get caught up with it in vanity. Nothing is new, really, because God is eternal and constant. God, who is the Creator and the foundation of all creation, is all there is. What may seem new to us is simply an “uncovering” of God in the world. We uncover God in a new discovery or a new personal insight. Our own birth, the birth of our child, and even the creation of the universe was not something “new” per se, but it was an uncovering of the reality of God. Each person we meet and each experience we have reveals to us something different about God, yet it was only hidden from our sight all this time.
Yes, I am impermanent. Perhaps one hundred or two hundred years from now there won’t be anyone on this planet who thinks of me or knew who I was, but it doesn’t mean the things I’ve done in this lifetime will not have somehow borne fruit in future generations. Generation by generation we uncover deeper realities of God. Each generation and each person has a purpose, a part in that uncovering. All we do should not be for vanity’s sake. All we do should be done well and for building up God’s kingdom for future generations. And since we’re impermanent, we don’t have a lot of time to do our part.
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Music by Kevin MacLeod