Funeral Lectionary: Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

Pete Seeger and the Byrds placed these words in many ears and on singers’ lips in the sixties of the last century. That may be why this is one of the more popular readings selected for a funeral, even though it is another not found among the Lectionary selections.

There is an appointed time for everything,
  and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
  a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
  a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
  a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
  a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
  a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
  a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
  a time of war, and a time of peace.

What advantage has the worker from toil?
I have considered the task
  which God has appointed for us to be busied about.
He has made everything appropriate to its time,
  and has put the timeless into our hearts,
  without our ever discovering,
  from beginning to end,
  the work which God has done.

This is a difficult passage on many levels. Perhaps its poetry saves it and demands for it a place in the Christian imagination. But what are we getting ourselves into?

Readers beware. An inexperienced lector is apt to drone on about “time,” but the true test of rendering this litany is to be able to emphasize the contrasts, to draw out the words that change from line to line, rather than insist on “time.” The author suggests time itself is irrelevant. Good and bad things will happen, so we had better get used to them.

Scholars find this last conclusion difficult. There is a lack of clarity on just what is meant by the Hebrew word translated as “timeless.” The scholar James Fischer suggests it might be “love of the world,” which places a cynical conclusion on a poetic reflection on the inevitability of existence. God works among us, but people mostly live their lives and never perceive it, never change, and never allow ourselves to embrace God off the path of inevitable mortal failure.

I wouldn’t discourage mourners from selecting this for a funeral. If they’re attached to the poetry, well it’s a nice enough piece. If people will plunge into the cynicism of it and draw out some lesson that we should attend to the wonders of God, the liturgy of the Word may need more fleshing out that just this passage.

If you’re planning your funeral in advance, I would ask you consider other readings perhaps. Or to delve a little more deeply into what the cynical philosopher Qoholeth is presenting. There’s more here than meets the eye.

While it is selected often, I cannot recall it ever being preached in a homily.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Order of Christian Funerals, Scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Funeral Lectionary: Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

  1. tom saldana says:

    This has always been one of my favorite readings and I was planning to use it as the first reading for my funeral as I plan it. But after reading the comments on it I have decided against it because I don’t think I could find a reader that can not emphasize the contrast rather than the work ‘time.’

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  3. Nicola Mary Kiely says:

    Would it work happily if sung -for instance in the place in the service where a psalm is used? I find the extra 5 verses written by pete Seeger’s wife {sung near the end of his life on Earth and available on youtube ] a very happy addition ,though not [as far as i know!] scriptural.Thankyou for giving me the opportunity to make this reply.Please answer if you are able. Thankyou.

    • Andy says:

      The Catholic liturgy does not allow to use any other text than a scriptural psalm as the response after the First Reading. A funeral Mass is the Church’s function, not just a family gathering when the only criterion of our choice is whether we like it or not.

  4. Fr Joe says:

    I just stumbled onto your site and really appreciate it. I am doing a funeral service tomorrow. I like the Ecclesiastes reading. It emphasizes that, while WE may not know why things are unfolding as they are, it does not mean they are random or senseless. God has a plan and a timing for everything. We may not see the reason this side of heaven, but in retrospect, His timing is perfect. I know from experience in my own life. I became a priest at 49 years old, 8 years ago. Thanks for all the work you put into your site. God bless.

  5. Brbara says:

    This is a beautiful reading for a funeral. I am perusing readings for my mother-in-laws funeral coming up. I love this. You can see how God has a plan for all of us and we are not in control. All in God;s time..

  6. Jules Begg says:

    I am reading this at my Mums funeral soon and thank everyone for their comments.

  7. Charlene Ozanick says:

    If the Philosopher Qoholeth is so “cynical”—why is this book even contained in the Hebrew Scriptures? Actually, it gives a very balanced view of life in general—and that with God—all
    life is timeless.

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