The Secret of Happiness

(Homily for Third Sunday of Advent, Year B)

On this “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday, I would like start with a humorous story. It is about a famous preacher who was trying to teach his students to make their facial expressions harmonize with what they are speaking about. “When you speak of heaven,” he said, “let you face light up, let it be irradiated with a heavenly gleam, let your eyes shine with reflected glory. But when speak of Hell – well, then, your ordinary face will do.”

I hope I have a smile to match the theme of this Sunday’s readings. Isaiah says:

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;

St. Paul, for his part, gives us this command, “Rejoice always.” It might seem strange that Paul orders us to be joyful. We tend to think that our happiness depends on external circumstances. If things are going well, we feel good. But if not, it seems hard to be joyful. That is true, but not completely true. It is possible to feel a certain kind of joy even when things are going badly.

I think of my dad in this regard. I will never forget when we took him to the hospital on account of a stomach pain. He had been unable to eat anything except broth for several days and he was feeling quite a bit of distress. The doctor examined him and afterward she told us that he had an intestinal obstruction. In the presence of my mom, my sister and me, she explained to my dad that he basically had two options. He could undergo an operation which could prolong his life for a number of months or she could administer palliative care which would give him three or four relatively pain free days that he could spend with his family. My dad looked at the doctor, then at us and said, “I guess this is it.”

My mom and my sister started crying. I did as well. Then my sister looked at my dad and said, “Look, Pa is smiling.” He was smiling. It may have been a special grace, but it was also that in times of crisis, my dad had learned to calm things with a small smile. This of course was the final crisis. Shakespeare spoke about “the dread of something after death, the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” My dad, like almost every human being, experienced that dread, that awe in the face of death: what or who we might meet after we take our last breath. Yet at the same time, my dad was able to focus on the present moment, to feel a certain joy.

I am sure that you know people like my dad. He was part of a generation (and a social class) that did not make excessive demands on life. Rather, he had a way of gratefully accepting small gifts. And when things did not go well, he drew upon unexpected inner resources. It was not resignation or (God forbid) cynicism. It was a kind of humility like we see in today's Gospel where John could say plainly, “I am not the Christ.” I am not able to save you or even myself, but there is Someone who can. For Him we wait in joyful hope.

The great French novelist, Leon Bloy, said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” The joy in question is not necessarily a bubbly feeling. In the ancient world, they understood happiness differently than we do today. For Aristotle happiness referred not so much to a passing emotion as to a whole quality of life: being in a right relationship with other human beings, with the world and ultimately with God.* Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” expresses this view of happiness. One of the lines says, “Even a worm has contentment.” That is, the lowly worm is in correct relationship with its world. For the worm it comes naturally. For us, we need to work at it – and to receive help from above. But we can find the happiness which St. Paul speaks of when he commands us, “Rejoice always.”**


*The American philosopher Mortimer Adler argues that Jefferson had this Aristotelian view in mind when he included the pursuit of happiness among man's inalienable rights: "Both Aristotle and the Declaration use the word happiness in a sense which refers to the quality of a whole human life -- what makes it good as a whole, in spite of the fact that we are not having fun or a good time every minute of it."

**It is beyond the scope of this homily, but I should mention the particular sense in which C.S. Lewis used the word "joy." Here is how two different writers described Lewis' crucial experience of joy:

While Lewis struggled through the rational barriers to faith (his head knowledge), at the same time throughout his life he was also aware of deep human emotions which point to a dimension of our existence beyond time and space. He referred to this emotion as Joy or Sehnsucht and perhaps no one since Augustine has written of it so memorably and movingly. Like a thread he followed it from atheism to theism to Christ.

By "joy," Lewis meant not mere pleasure but the sublime experience of the transcendent, the glimpse of the eternal that is only fleetingly available in earthly loves and aesthetics. It is, for Lewis, only finally received in heavenly glory at the consummation of the age, a joy to be found in the Creator who himself invented both world and word, person and personality. It is He alone who redeems his fallen creation and provide them joy. From his earliest intimations of this joy, Lewis depicts himself in Surprised by Joy as precociously oriented toward the metaphysical and ultimate questions.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Third Sunday of Advent, Year B):

2014: Preparing Our Hearts Week 3
2011: Joy is a Decision
2008: Too Serious to Take Seriously
2005: The Secret of Happiness
2002: To Heal the Brokenhearted

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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Jihad Watch

Anti-Catholic themes may be loosely categorized as follows:

1. attacking Catholicism as being un-Christian or a cult (in the pejorative and not the sociological sense);
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(from Holy Family Bulletin, Dec 14, 2008)

Parish Picture Album

(November 2011)

Parish Picture Album


MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru