Matthew 16:21-27, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
What makes a person happy? This is an age-old question that has gotten the attention of philosophers and psychologists. Recently, it has been the object of research by economists who believe that data derived from the question can be used to craft public policy. One author says that “the study of happiness is increasingly recognized as a science, and there is serious discussion of applying its findings to policy questions…” (Carol Graham, Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires)
Where and how does an average person obtain happiness? Greek mythology introduces us to the story of King Midas. Legend has it that King Midas was given by the god Dionysius the power to turn to gold anything that he would lay his hands on. But as Midas sought happiness in gold, ironically in the end, his power made him miserable. For even his food would “grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice” (Claudian, In Rufinem). He ended up not with happiness but starvation.
Is money the key to happiness? While money is necessary, is it really what makes people happy? In 1974, a study was made, paving the way to the so-called Easterlin paradox which has sparked interest and continues to be unresolved. The study makes the claim that there is no clear relationship between average income and happiness levels, “suggesting that many other factors – including cultural traits – are at play”.
If we confront the question from the perspective of faith, the Gospel for today takes us to a rather unique path. Jesus proposes to his disciples, and to us, a distinctive approach to the pursuit of happiness. For Jesus, genuine happiness is not found by way of accumulating wealth. Happiness is discovered, paradoxically, in self-giving love.
Jesus says in the Gospel, “Whoever comes after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. The life of Jesus was an absolute self-offering in love and obedience to the Father for our salvation. Following Jesus means learning to let go of our self-centeredness. It means learning to expand the horizons of our concerns beyond our ego and our pride.
Fr. Nil Guillemette, SJ once wrote that we are a burden to ourselves. The more we focus on ourselves, the heavier our burden becomes. It is when we try to think of others more that we lighten our load and the pursuit of true happiness begins. It is in the process of losing that we truly gain.
The truth behind this “Christian path” is plain for us to see, but our wounded nature seems to persistently resist it. This truth we see in the joy of parents who give themselves totally for their children. We see it in the helping profession – in counselors, pastoral ministers, parish and outreach volunteers, doctors and nurses, among others – who often find themselves among the poor and the neglected, and drawn to serve them selflessly. For Jesus, happiness is almost counter-intuitive. It is in self-denial that the self is ultimately found. It is in dying to self that the self truly becomes alive.
In this mass we pray for the grace of generous loving. We ask the Lord to help us grow in self-gift so that we find the path to true happiness in the here-and-now, as well as in the life to come.