Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Beatitudes: Jesus’ Prescription for Happiness

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 29, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday 2017]

“Latest Happiness Index Reveals American Happiness at All-Time Low”

That was the headline of a brief article that I found recently on the Harris Poll’s web site.  It was published on July 8th of last year.  The article was about their annual survey on the happiness level of the citizens of our nation.  The people at Harris call it the “Happiness Index”.  Well, as the headline indicates, this past year’s results were not very encouraging.  According to the poll only 31% of Americans are very happy at the present time—which is an all-time low, but not all that different from previous years.  Since Harris began doing this back in 2008, their Happiness Index has consistently been in the low-to-mid 30s.  Now that’s bad enough, but according to this article, the number of truly happy people might actually be even smaller.  That’s because the pollsters believe that many people “may overstate how happy they really are.”

How can this be?  How can this be with all the possessions we have?  How can this be with all the comforts we have?  How can this be with all the educational and recreational opportunities we have?  How can this be with all the technology we have?

Shouldn’t we be the happiest people on earth?
Shouldn’t we be the happiest people in the history of the world?

Yes, we should be.

But we obviously aren’t.

If Jesus were standing here this morning instead of yours truly, I think he would tell us there’s a reason for this; it’s not a coincidence.  There’s a reason why the Happiness Index in America is so low right now in spite of all the blessings and opportunities we have in our country.

I believe that Jesus would say it’s because not enough Americans believe that the Beatitudes are what he told us they are—namely, the keys to true and lasting happiness. Each beatitude you will notice begins with the word “Blessed.” That word in the original Greek text of Matthew’s gospel is “makarios.”  Makarios can be translated by the English word “blessed” (as it is here), but it can also be translated by the English word “Happy.” And in some versions of the Bible it is. In those versions, the first beatitude reads, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And the others begin in the same way.

The Beatitudes are the attitudes that keep us on the road to eternal life—which is why they have the power to bring us happiness.  But we need to be clear about it: this is not the superficial kind of happiness that depends on circumstances (which is the kind of happiness that Patriots’ fans have right now and Packers’ fans don’t!).  That kind of happiness comes and goes, depending on what’s going on in your life (and whether or not your favorite football team won its last game!).

The happiness that comes from embracing and living the Beatitudes is different.  The happiness that comes from embracing and living the Beatitudes is a happiness—a kind of peace, really—that dwells at the very core of your being, which means that it can exist—and persist—even in the midst of great sorrow.

Which is very good news.

So Jesus says, “Happy will you be if you are poor in spirit.”  In other words, happy will you be if you know you need God and then put him first in your life, because in doing that you will be on the road to heaven—even if from time to time you experience a few bumps in the road here on earth.

Happy will you be when you mourn: when you mourn, first of all, for your own personal sins—because your mourning will lead you to repentance.  And happy will you be when you mourn in the midst of the “bumps in the road” you experience, because those sufferings will bring you closer to Christ, and when you “offer them up” (as the nuns used to tell us to do) you'll draw down many blessings into your own life and into the lives of others.

Happy will you be if you are meek—in other words, if you humbly accept God's will in your life with serenity and confidence.

Happy will you be if your first goal in this life is to be holy, and not rich or famous.

Happy will you be if you are merciful and forgiving.  Unforgiveness will not destroy you, and God will be merciful to you in your own life.

Happy will you be if you are single-hearted and if you serve God for the right reasons and not for selfish motives.

Happy will you be if you work to establish the peace that Jesus came to this earth to give: peace in your family, peace in your place of employment, peace wherever you happen to be.

Happy will you be even in the midst of persecution, because you'll realize that you're sharing in the Cross of Christ, which means that in heaven you'll share more fully in the fruits of the Lord's resurrection!

The Happiness Index in America that I spoke about at the beginning of my homily will only improve significantly, I believe, if more people begin to embrace—and live—Jesus’ prescription for happiness, as expressed in these Beatitudes.  If the majority of Americans continue to base their happiness on the ever-changing circumstances of their lives (like whether or not their favorite football team wins), then the percentage of happy people among us will probably stay where it’s been in every Harris Poll since 2008: somewhere between 31 and 35 percent.  Because in all likelihood that’s about the percentage of the population that’s not dealing with difficult circumstances at any given time.  For example, I’ll bet if I took a survey today on how many of you are dealing with difficult circumstances in your lives right now, at least 7 out of every 10 of you would raise your hands.

So obviously it’s a mistake to try to find lasting happiness—lasting beatitude—in the things and in the circumstances of this earthly life.  If you do that, you’ll be crying 7 out of every 10 days!

The happiness—the beatitude—that endures comes from Jesus Christ, and is rooted in his words to us in today’s gospel.

And so we pray this morning: Lord, may your Beatitudes become our attitudes, and may we inspire others to make your Beatitudes their attitudes, so that we will all experience a measure of beatitude here on this earth, and eternal beatitude someday with you in your heavenly kingdom.  Amen.