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ON THE SHORTNESS OF LIFE

Ikaw Lamang ang Nais Ko
September 24, 2020
TIME IN A BOTTLE
September 25, 2020

Homily for 24 September 2020, Thursday of the 25th Week in Ordinary Time, Luke: 9:7-9

Today, I wish to begin my reflection, not with the Gospel but with the Responsorial Psalm, which is taken from one of my favorite Psalms in the Bible—Psalm 90, which is a meditation on the shortness of life.
A few weeks ago, I think I shared to you that a lady had asked me to bless her father’s cremated remains which were contained in a ceramic urn. She actually opened the lid of the urn so I could sprinkle holy water on the ashes of her father. Before I did so, I stooped to peer inside. I was surprised to find out that the urn was only about half-full. I was suddenly gripped by the thought…that that is all that will remain materially of our bodies—a few handfuls of ashes. It is a very humbling thought. Exactly what the Psalmist is trying to tell us in the Psalm that we heard today:
“You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Return, o mortal!’ A thousand years in your eyes are merely a day gone by, like a watch in the night. You sweep them away like a dream; in the morning they spring up like grass, but by evening they wither and fade… our life is over like a sigh. Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; Most of these are fruitless toil; they pass quickly, and we are gone… Teach us to number our days aright, so that we may gain wisdom of heart…”
The last few lines are an echo of our first reading from the book of Ecclesiastes. I used to react to this reading and I always wondered why it got included in the Bible at all. I always regarded it as cynical. Can you imagine saying “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity?” The Christian Community Bible makes it sound even worse. It says, “Meaningless, meaningless, all things are meaningless.”
It was not until much later that I realized that this shocking piece of poetry actually belongs to the Wisdom Literature. It is actually intended to make us ask ourselves what it is in this material world that we can hold on to that can make us truly happy. The writer engages you first in a long devil’s advocate kind of argumentation that eventually makes you realize the secret of true happiness. And that is, never to hold on to anything in this passing world as your everything—because, if you lose it, you are good as lost yourself.
The book of Ecclesiastes gives wisdom by teaching us to develop a good attitude, a proper perspective in life. A few days ago I was listening to the American actress and writer Emily Levine who gave a much-acclaimed TED lecture which you can access anytime on Youtube. I think the thoughts that she shared in that lecture are a good example of the kind of attitude that both Psalm 90 and the opening lines in the book of Ecclesiastes are trying to impart.
She began by saying, “I have stage IV lung cancer. I know, you might say, “poor me.” But I don’t feel that way. I’m OK with it. I don’t understand — I simply just don’t understand the mindset of people who are out to “defeat death” and “overcome death.” How do you do that? How do you defeat death without killing off life? It doesn’t make sense to me. I also have to say, I find it incredibly ungrateful. I mean, you’re given this extraordinary gift — life, it comes with an expiration date.” (It’s not like you did not know it.)
She goes on, “I don’t understand — to me, it’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to nature. The idea that we’re going to dominate nature, we’re going to master nature…no, I don’t think so. So here’s how it looks from my point of view, from my mindset… First of all, I am incredibly grateful for life…You know, I look at death now… as part of (what Weber calls) the gift economy. You’re given this enormous gift, life, you enrich it as best you can, and then you give it back.”
Levine ends by saying, “Life is a banquet, and—well…, I’ve eaten my fill. I have had an enormous appetite for life, I’ve consumed life, but in death, I’m going to be consumed. I’m going into the ground just the way I am, and there, I invite every microbe and… decomposer to have their fill. I think they’ll find me delicious.”
I found it amazing how she could make her audience laugh at death in a manner that has so much reverence for life. She made me understand why it is important, every now and then to be reminded of the shortness of life, to befriend death, to come to terms with our own mortality. It actually makes us value life even more.
Maybe that is what the author of the Psalm means when he ends his meditation on the shortness of life with a prayer. He says, “Teach us o Lord to number our days aright that we may gain wisdom of heart.” We will never gain that wisdom until we have come to terms with our mortality.
This is probably why we refer to dying in our Judaeo-Christian tradition as a PASSING ON. I am reminded of the famous lines that our parish priest inscribed on a wall facing the sacristy of our Church in Betis. I really thought back then that “Anonymous” was the name of the author. It was not until High School that I learned that anonymous meant the author was unknown. How strange, I later thought to myself—that a man’s words could be still remembered even long after his name had been forgotten.
It says, “I shall pass through this world but once. If there is any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not neglect it or postpone it for another day, for I shall never pass this way again.”

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