Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joy: It Comes from UNSATISFIED Desires


(Third Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 15, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10; Matthew 11: 2-11.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Advent 2013]


One had pleasure; the other had joy.

That was the thought I had as I reflected on today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11.

The one who had pleasure was Herod (who’s not explicitly mentioned in the passage, but who was definitely in the background of the story); the one who had joy (at least at the end of the scene) was John the Baptist.

Here we have John in prison for telling King Herod the truth about his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife, Herodias.  Obviously for the king, the immoral activity associated with this relationship was extremely pleasurable—which is why he had absolutely no interest in giving it up.  But that shouldn’t surprise us because it seems that Herod was a man who was literally “addicted” to pleasure.  In fact it was precisely this addiction which would eventually lead him to have John executed.  The Bible tells us that Herod experienced intense pleasure one day while watching Herodias’ daughter dance provocatively.  Then he made a very foolish promise: he promised the girl that he would give her whatever she wanted—even to half of his kingdom!  She immediately went to her evil mother and said, “What should I ask for?”  Herodias wasted no time in responding.  She knew that this was her chance to get rid of her enemy for good, so she said to her daughter, “You go to the king, and you ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Now I’m sure that after John’s murder Herodias and the king experienced many more moments of great, intense, overwhelming pleasure.  I’m not so certain that they’re still experiencing any pleasure—but I’ll leave that issue for another homily.

The relevant question for this homily is: Did the man also have joy?  We can discern from the witness of Scripture that Herod experienced a great deal of pleasure in his earthly life—but pleasure and joy are not the same thing!

Sometimes they coexist, but very often they don’t.

In fact, it’s possible for a person to experience a deep and abiding joy, while at the same time experiencing very little pleasure or none at all—just as it’s possible to experience intense pleasure without any real joy.

I hope this doesn’t sound strange to you.  But I know that it might, because in contemporary American society right now we are often given the message that pleasure and joy are synonymous.

But they’re not!

Pleasure is a positive bodily and emotional response to something.  But it’s only temporary.  For example, I derive great pleasure from eating as long as I’m eating—and as long as I’m eating good and tasty food.  I derive pleasure from sitting on a beach in the summer, as long as it’s July, and I’m actually sitting in my beach chair and the sun is shining down on me (although the pleasure can be reproduced to some extent in December if I use my imagination).  I derive pleasure from sitting in front of a television set watching the Green Bay Packers win football games (which means, of course, that I have not experienced too much pleasure watching football games this year!).

Now, in and of itself, pleasure is not a bad thing.  The problem comes either when the object of our pleasure is morally evil (like the death of an innocent person such as John the Baptist), or when the desire for pleasure becomes the driving force in our life (as it was for King Herod).

Many people today are addicted to pornography for precisely this reason: they desire the pleasure that comes from viewing it—and that becomes the driving force in their lives.  But they very quickly discover that the pleasure is only temporary, so they have to view the porn continually—or whenever they have the opportunity.

So much for pleasure.  Joy, on the other hand, is different.  Joy is a state of the heart based, believe it or not, on desires that are unsatisfied.  Which means that as long as our desire is not fully satisfied, our joy can persist.  It doesn’t have to be a temporary phenomenon.

(Here I'm presuming, of course, that the object of our desire is good.)

This insight about joy is one that C.S. Lewis had.  And I will admit that when I first read it awhile back, it didn’t make any sense to me.  It sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?  I mean, how can joy come to us in this life from unsatisfied desires?  I always thought that joy came when our wants and desires were satisfied and fulfilled.

But then I stopped and really reflected on it, and I came to see that, as usual, C.S. Lewis was right!

I’ll now illustrate the truth of his insight with two examples: one from our modern world; the other from today’s gospel reading.

Consider, first of all, your typical 5-year-old during the month of December.  Needless to say, as December 25 approaches, that child’s joy becomes more and more intense.  Why?  Because of an unsatisfied desire!  All through the month of December that child dreams of what he will find under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning!  He longs for that new toy or video game or bike (or all of the above!).  He doesn’t possess it yet—his desire is not yet satisfied—but his heart is filled with joy because he knows (or at least he strongly believes) that it’s coming soon!

And the irony is, five hours after he gets what he wants on Christmas morning, his joy will dissipate and he’ll probably be bored: “Mom, dad, there’s nothing to do!”

This, by the way, is one of the biggest differences between life on earth and life in heaven.  Here, joy often quickly decreases when our desires get satisfied, but in heaven the object of our desire—God—is infinite, so the joy never ends!  Our desire for perfect love, perfect life and perfect truth is continually fulfilled there for all eternity.

Which brings me to the example from today’s gospel that illustrates this idea of C.S. Lewis that joy is based on unsatisfied desires: John the Baptist.

John believed that he was called to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  And for many years he presumed that the Messiah was none other than his cousin Jesus.  John desired the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel, consequently I’m sure he experienced incredible joy as he was seeing God’s plan unfold before his eyes (in fact, in one of the gospels John explicitly talks about the joy that was in his heart during his ministry).

But then, for a short time, I think he lost that joy—or at least some of it.  It seems that after John was arrested and thrown into prison by Herod he began to wonder whether or not he had gotten it right.  He began to wonder whether or not his cousin Jesus really was the Messiah they were all waiting for.  I think that’s probably because John, like most Jews of the time, expected the Messiah to be more forceful and heavy-handed than Jesus was.

So he sent his disciples to our Lord to ask him the big question: “Are you the one?—are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Jesus answered by saying, in effect, “Go back and remind my cousin that I’m doing all those incredible things that Isaiah the prophet said many years ago that the Messiah would do [in passages like the one we heard today in our first reading]—I’m healing the blind, the sick, the lame, lepers.  I’m raising the dead, and I’m preaching the good news to the poor.  Blessed—happy—joyful—is the one who takes no offence at me.”

John the Baptist never left that prison cell—until the day he was beheaded by King Herod and was carried out.  He experienced very little, if any, pleasure during his remaining days on planet earth.

But he was definitely filled with joy!  I mean, how could he not be?!!  His desire—his hope—for the redemption of Israel had been rekindled!  His purpose had been reaffirmed!  He now knew that his work had not been in vain.  He now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that his Savior had come!  And his desire—his unfulfilled desire—to see the Savior complete his work became the source of John’s joy.

He was like a 5-year-old child on the morning of December 24!  And I believe John the Baptist stayed that way even as he went to his death.

I mention all this today because we live in a world right now where many people relentlessly pursue pleasure (much of it sinful!).  And so they spend their entire lives like King Herod: going from one pleasure to another without ever experiencing any real joy—and they hurt themselves and other people in the process.

The lesson of this homily is that if we really want to experience a joy that lasts, we need to cultivate in our hearts a deep desire for heaven (the kind of desire the great saints had)!  Joy, remember, comes from unsatisfied desires.  Well, the desire for heaven will not be satisfied until we leave this life.  But that’s actually good news, because if we have the unsatisfied desire for eternal life deep within us it means we can always have joy (or at least a measure of joy) within us—even on the worst of days.