How to Achieve Happiness

(Homily for Fourth Ordinary Sunday, Year A)

Someone once cricitized C. S. Lewis for “not caring for the Sermon on the Mount.” He replied, “As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.” [God in the Dock, pp. 181-82].

Today Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by setting out his plan for happiness (beatitude). For his original hearers it had a “sledge hammer” effect. In so many words, this is what he says will make us happy: bankruptcy, loss of loved ones, abstinence from savory food and sex, political defeat, invasion of boundaries, misunderstandings, false accusations – and, above all, to become the laughingstock of former friends.

Jesus is not saying any of those things are good in themselves.* Unfortunately, some have used the Beatitudes to justify not helping others out of their misery – or to encourage a false resignation. No! Poverty, grief, insults are evils from which we must do our best to protect others and ourselves.

Still, those evils will come. Even Bill Gates will experience total deprivation before he departs this life. What Jesus says is that when those things come, if we embrace them for His sake, we will discover true happiness.

When I read the Beatitudes – and reflect on what they mean- I realize how unconverted I am. Last week, Jesus opened his public ministry with the word, “Repent.” It means to change ones mind. I sometimes find myself astonished that, after thirty years of preaching and celebrating the sacraments, how little progress I have made in the transformation of my mind. I continue with the illusion that something this world offers will give me happiness: clergy pension plan, vacation, health, money, reputation, influence, the attention of a certain person – anything except the Kingdom of Heaven. Or maybe I have begun to imagine that, when all is said and done, those things are the Kingdom. As I get older and experience modest success, the temptation becomes stronger. Like a sledge hammer, the Beatitudes are meant to shatter such an illusion.**

In just ten days we begin a season intended to bring us back to reality. February 13 is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. On that day people come to church whom we normally do not see, particularly youth and the poor. They sense that all the things they are struggling to obtain will not satisfy them. The discipline of Lent – fasting, prayer and almsgiving - can help one discover the real source of beatitude. As we shall see, Lent is not about extinguishing desire, but rather to encounter the only One who can fulfill our deepest wants.

************

*Abstinence from rich food and sex, while often essential for a disciple, is not good in itself. God meant us to enjoy those things in their proper context: sex within a loving marriage open to procreation and rich food on a festive occasion. Unfortunately, we Americans have become convinced that to be deprived of those things, even for a short time, will cause untold psychic damage. We are paying the price for such indulgence.

**Regarding that illusion Pope John Paul II pointed out the similitary - and difference - between Christianity and Buddhism. Although critized for his bluntness, it is well worth reading what he said in Crossing the Threshhold of Hope, Chapter 14.

Versión Castellana

From Archives (Fourth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2017: Hidden Wisdom Week 1- Beatitudes
2011: The Four Daughters of God
2008: Maybe Yes, Maybe No
2005: Pagan vs. Christian Happiness
2002: How to Achieve Happiness
1999: Catholic School & Culture of Death

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