I’ve never really been much of a puzzle person, but probably most of us have had the experience of putting a puzzle together. One of the most entertaining parts of the puzzle is when you’re finding the little connections in the middle of the puzzle, fitting a few pieces together. But as any puzzle enthusiast knows, the goal should always ultimately be the completion of the entire puzzle. Those little moments of success are nice, but it’s the final completion that is most important.
When we think of happiness, our tendency is to think about happiness in this life: the nice job, the beautiful house, the fast car. But when Jesus is talking about happiness, he’s thinking of something much, much bigger than that. He understands that in this fallen world, and in our fallen human nature, we can only experience partial happiness. Now I don’t mean for this to be a downer for you this morning, but there will always be suffering, adversity, and evil in our lives. Jesus never promised that believing in him meant that earth would turn into heaven. But he did promise, as the Gospel reminds us today, that believing in him will put us on the path to increasing happiness in this life and total fulfillment in the life to come. It’s not a choice of one or the other. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to find happiness on earth – the nice job, the beautiful house, the fast car – those things are all good. But if you listen closely to the prayers at every Mass, about 80% of the time, they’re talking about having some happiness here, but reminding us that it’s only a foretaste of the fullness that we’ll find in heaven.
That’s Jesus’ agenda. That’s what he wants to bring to us and have us set our hearts on – the bigger picture, the eternal perspective. “Eternal life,” “living forever,” “raised on the last day,” – these are all the key phrases that he uses in the Gospel. That’s why he came, and it’s the goal of all his sufferings and efforts. He never wants us to let that goal drift into the background, with us focusing only on the here and now. Even good things and good works in the church like social justice and acts of charity need to have that connection to the ultimate goal of happiness in heaven.
People often get religious around crises, but real faith, real friendship with Christ isn’t a temporary fix or a self-help psychological practice that makes us more chipper. He’s offering us something much more than being chipper, thank goodness. Christianity isn’t that, and it’s not a list of do’s and don’ts. Christianity is God’s active desire to lead each of us to the fullness of life that we all yearn for, both in this life and in the next.
Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of this. Jesus always wants to give us more, but he doesn’t force it on us. If we’re going to receive the wisdom and interior joy that comes from living that bigger picture, we have to practice mortification and self-denial. People sometimes think this is a throwback to times before Vatican II or to old ideas. But think about it this way: If you’ve got a cup of vinegar, you have to empty it out and clean it before you can fill it with honey. If the vinegar is only partially gone, or if the cup isn’t cleaned out, it’s going to spoil the taste of the honey. In the same way, if our hearts are filled with just the desires for earthly happiness, there’s no room for desiring friendship with Christ. We have to clean ourselves out in order to truly get the taste for that sweetness and fulfillment that God offers us.
Self-denial and mortification are in the little things. Try to give something up on Fridays like desert or soda. If you can avoid it, it’s always a good and fruitful practice not to eat meat on Fridays. This isn’t just a Lent thing. Lent is merely a time when we put a special focus on self-denial, but the Church is always assuming that we’re trying to live like that all the time. If we follow Christ – obeying the commandments, following the teachings of the Church, praying – then he will lead us down the path to everlasting fulfillment. That path is paved with crosses, and it might cause us to leave behind the temporary satisfactions that we find attractive, but these are just more invitations to us to take up that cross, follow him, and embrace the eternal life and happiness that he prepares for us.
Just as a side note, I have to admit that I heavily used some resources from epriest.com this time. I put my own stuff in it as well, but they definitely deserve some credit. Thank you, Internet!