When I was growing up, I always liked the “Peanuts” comic strip. Some of the best were the ones that started with “Happiness is…” So they would show pictures of Peppermint Patty hugging Snoopy with the caption “Happiness is a warm puppy” while another said, “Happiness is a good friend.” I think those cartoons were so appealing because we all naturally want to know how we can be happy, and most of us spend a good deal of our lives trying to figure that out. Often we will try one thing or another to see if it will make us happy. Maybe a self-help book here, or a TV Infomercial get rich scheme there. Maybe we’ll do whatever Oprah or Dr. Phil tell us will make us happy, or perhaps we’ll go power shopping. Maybe we will look for happiness in relationships that are not life-giving, or in owning things we do not need. Perhaps happiness is waiting for us in the right career, or the right school. But all too often we will become frustrated by the lack of happiness all these ideas give us, and then we mask the frustration and unhappiness in some kind of addiction. Happiness can be a rather elusive thing if we let it be.
Today’s Liturgy of the Word is, in some ways, a reflection on what happiness is. We hear the readings today talk a lot about blessedness, and when the Scriptures speak of blessedness, they are talking about happiness. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word is ‘esher, and in New Testament Greek it is makarios. Both of those can be translated “blessed” or “happy.” These ancient languages and cultures made a very strong link between the concept of being happy, and the blessings one had received. There’s even a sense of that in our own words. Dictionary.com has as one of its definitions of blessed, “blissfully happy or contented.” The elusive pursuit of happiness throughout time has included the idea of having been blessed by someone.
But today’s Scriptures don’t quite go there. Today we hear the idea of happiness as a choice – our choice. We are given the choice of happiness and blessing or woefulness and curse, and we have the freedom to choose either path. Now the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah starts out with the rather ominous “thus says the Lord…” Usually that is followed by some foreboding of doom or prediction of dire consequences for impure behavior. But that’s not what we get in this reading. Here, Jeremiah speaks to a people who had been through exile and oppression, and he speaks words of comfort to them. But these words of comfort are more the like of tough love. His hearers are given two possible paths to follow: one can trust in human beings, or one can trust in the Lord. Guess which one is the right answer? Trusting in the power of people is what got them into trouble in the first place – that kind of nonsense will only bring them continued curse. But, those who trust in the Lord will find themselves blessed and fruitful, drawing their life from the ever flowing waters of the grace of God. But they have to choose one way or the other.
Now we’ve all heard the Beatitudes before. But we are perhaps more familiar with Matthew’s version of them, which foretells blessing for the pure of heart and peacemakers and all the rest. Luke has just four beatitudes of blessing, but contrasts them with beatitudes of woe. These parallel quite closely the idea of curse and blessing we hear in Jeremiah’s reading. Those who are blessed – the happy ones – are those who choose to find their strength in God. Those who rely on themselves or other human beings or anything that is not God will find themselves filled with woe. What is so incredible about these beatitudes is that they are completely counter-intuitive. One would expect to be completely happy if one were rich, filled up, joyful and laughing, and well-spoken-of. But that’s not how it works in the Kingdom of God. Those filled ones are also filled with woe. Why? Because there is nothing in them left to be filled with the presence of God. Now, those who are poor, hungry, weeping and hated have all the room inside them in the world, and that can be filled with the incredible blessing of God. These will find themselves completely happy indeed. But one has to choose that path.
The point that we absolutely have to get here – the point that I want you to take away even if you hear nothing else today – is that when we look for happiness anywhere else than in the blessing of God’s presence in our mind, we will always be ultimately unsuccessful. So part of today’s reflection on happiness has to find us taking a long, hard look at ourselves. I have to admit that I had the hardest time figuring out today’s homily. When I prayed about it, I found that there were indeed areas where I was looking for happiness in something far less than God, and I was resisting going there. When we reflected on this reading in our staff meeting on Friday, one of the staff said that it was hard to hear this version of the beatitudes because it was like a mirror was being held in front of you, and you found yourself having to see the mistakes and imperfections and flaws in your life. And she was right, that’s exactly what these readings are doing in us.
So if you found yourself squirming a bit as woe was foretold to the rich, or to those filled up, or to those laughing or well-spoken of, then I think you’re starting to get the message. If we who are extremely blessed in our lives are so rich or filled up or jovial or well-spoken of that we find ourselves ignoring the cries of the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the oppressed, then we have some work to do in our spiritual lives. And work on it we better, or we will absolutely find ourselves ultimately, and perhaps eternally, unhappy. That’s what we hear in today’s readings.
So are we finding our happiness in enough money, the right job, the best toys, the finest food, drink and entertainment? Those things aren’t bad in and of themselves, but if that is the ultimate goal of our lives, then we have to hear in today’s Gospel that we’ve got it all wrong. St. Ignatius spoke often of detachment, meaning the ability to have things but not center our lives around them, or even the ability to give them up if necessary. Today’s Liturgy of the Word impels us to look at the things we are attached to, and to give them up if they are ultimately keeping us from God.
The Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously spoke of this in his “Serenity Prayer.” We’ve all heard the first part of it:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
But maybe you haven’t heard the rest of that prayer. Listen closely:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
What is going to have us living supremely happy with God forever in the next life? Living and enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship, and dealing with the world as it is. But even more than that, happiness comes in trusting God to make everything right. So if we find ourselves in the woeful condition of poverty, hunger, grief and oppression, we can indeed look forward to great happiness in God.
What these readings are calling us to do is to stand in front of that mirror and take a long, hard look at ourselves. If we see in that reflection any attachments that have us neglecting God or others, it’s time to ruthlessly cut them out of our lives. Lent is coming in just over a week. Maybe we will see in that mirror something we need to give up. I know everyone wants to hear me say that you don’t have to give anything up for Lent as long as you do something nice for others and try to be a good person. But that kind of advice is spiritual garbage, and you can hear that kind of thing from Oprah and Dr. Phil – you don’t need to hear me say it. You’re supposed to do something nice for others and be a good person all the time. Lent is an opportunity and a call to look at your spiritual life and get right with God. It is a time to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel as we’ll hear on Ash Wednesday. So please hear me say that if there is something in that mirror that is keeping you attached to something other than God, you absolutely have to give it up, and giving it up for Lent is a good start.
We have before us two paths. Going down one, you will trust in yourself and others. This is the path that leads to woe. Going down the other, you will trust in God alone. Those who trod this path will be truly blessed, truly happy. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.