I deviated quite a bit from my text this weekend, and I think the recorded version was better.
Fr. Bryan Howard
23rdSunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C – 8 September 2019
What makes you happy? The way that we answer that question has a huge impact on the choices that we make in our lives. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that everyone chooses what they think will make them happy, what they think is good, although they sometimes overlook a greater evil in their choices. The addict chooses to do drugs because they think it will make them happy; they choose the good of the pleasure they receive from the drug while overlooking the greater evil of the pain it causes them and others. If we can figure out what really makes us happy, what can bring lasting happiness, then we can train ourselves to choose the rights things and avoid the wrong things, i.e. to choose good and to avoid evil. We must see that happiness is more than merely physical pleasure but is, as the Bible puts it, blessedness, or closeness to God.
So, what makes you happy? The contentment that we get from good food and drink fades after the meal. The joy we get from being well thought of and honored by others sours with time. Power over others is temporary, and those who hold on to power constantly fear losing it. Even money is simply a means to acquiring other things, and those things eventually turn boring. All of those things can only bring temporary happiness in our lives and ultimately leave us wanting something more. Only God can give us lasting and eternal happiness.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus sees the great crowds that are travelling with Him and turns to them, saying, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”If we think of life as the pursuit of pleasure then these words of Jesus don’t make any sense. We may think of the Cross as a Christian symbol representing God’s love for us, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the cross was the ultimate symbol of Roman power and a cruel and painful form of execution. Criminals and rebels were forced to carry their own crosses to the place of their execution. If we think of life as the pursuit of personal happiness, or the pursuit of pleasure, then these words of Jesus don’t make any sense. Jesus is challenging us to see that we can only be truly happy by putting God first in our lives, ahead of our family, ahead of our own lives, and even ahead of our own desire for happiness.
Why would Jesus say this in such a blunt way? Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus is traveling with a great crowd following Him, but at the foot of the Cross there will only be a handful of people, Mary, His mother, St. John, and a few others. I think Jesus knew that many of those people were only following Him because of the miracles that He performed, and He wanted them to understand the cost of being His disciple. We must give ourselves totally to Jesus. St. Paul calls Himself a slave of Christ Jesus in His letter to the Romans, even as He tells the Corinthians, “For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ”(1 Cor 7:22). In today’s second reading one of the Christian communities sent a slave, Onesimus, to tend to St. Paul while he’s in prison, and St. Paul is sending Onesimus back having baptized Him and is asking them to free him, “That you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother.”So which is it, or we slaves of Christ or are we free? Both, when we make ourselves slaves of Christ, giving ourselves completely to God, then Christ makes us free by giving us the Holy Spirit and making us children of God.
The paradox of the Gospel is that true and lasting happiness only comes when we set aside our own desire for happiness, or pleasure, power, money, and fame, and put other people ahead of ourselves. This is what Jesus did when He became one of us, “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”(Phil 2:6-11). Jesus emptied Himself, took on our human condition, and willingly bore the Cross and was crucified for us. We must now do what Jesus did. Married people, put your husband or wife ahead of yourself. Parents, put your children ahead of yourselves. Young people, strive to grow in virtue and holiness, to become ready to accept your full responsibility as a Christian. We must all strive to love as Christ loved, and especially those who are most in need.
True happiness is not found in pleasure, which is only temporary; it is found in being close to God. In the same way, true love is not found in warm and fuzzy feelings, which come and go out of our control; true love is found in doing what Jesus did for us and putting the needs of others ahead of our own. As we celebrate the Eucharist, the memorial of Christ Cross and Resurrection, let us ask God to fill us with the love of Jesus and draw us ever closer to His Most Sacred Heart.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.