Homily: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
Doesn't a beach on a Greek island sound amazing right now? To me, it sounds warm and relaxing, yet full of life; and not so exotic that you are on sensory overload. Just restful, peaceful... a place where you would love to live if you could find a little work to do to keep your finances up. I’ve never been to a Greek island, but that’s the impression I have of them. There's a reason for this: Nestled into the Mediterranean Sea, the Greek Islands are in a great climate and, thus, full of natural resources. It is said that, at least at one time, the island of Cyprus was so rich in natural resources, that its residents didn't need to go off the island for anything. They had everything that they needed on the island: they were content in themselves. This led to the island being nicknamed "makaria"—a name playing off of the Greek word for "divine joy"—makarios.
Makarios is a word indicating a deep, abiding joy or happiness: one that isn't dependent on external circumstances. This is why Cyprus was called "island of makarios", because external circumstances didn't affect the ability of its residents to live a comfortable, peaceful life.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to this as he was trying to determine the "end" (or telos) of human beings: that is, the thing for which we are all striving. By his observations, all living things have something to which they are striving. A plant, for example, is always striving for the sun. Not in a conscious way, of course, but in that natural, automatic way that living things strive after the things they need to survive. Although a little more complicated, Aristotle nonetheless saw that human beings also have a common end toward which they are striving. Again, by his observation, he could see that, in every choice that we make, either conscious or unconscious, what we choose is based on whether or not we think that it would move us toward that common end; and the end, or telos, for human beings, according to Aristotle, is happiness. Not just any happiness, of course, but the deep, abiding happiness described by the word makarios.
Now, we could be right or wrong about whether or not what we choose will lead us towards the greatest happiness and Aristotle certainly has his opinions on what things will move us toward the greatest happiness. For Christians, however, we can look to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who took Aristotle’s philosophy and interpreted it using Christian theology. Saint Thomas agreed with Aristotle that human beings have a telos, and that our telos is makarios: a deep, abiding happiness. Saint Thomas then pointed to the true ultimate happiness that anyone could have: the Beatific Vision, that is, standing face to face with God in an eternal communion with him. Therefore, for Saint Thomas, the criterion for “choosing so as to become happy” becomes, “whatever it is that moves us closer to the Beatific Vision”.
Saint Thomas was not inventing this idea, however. Rather, this idea of makarios is exactly that to which our scriptures are referring today. Jeremiah, the prophet from whom we heard in the first reading, is teaching about where true makarios may be found. It is not in human beings or in human/worldly things, he teaches; rather, it is in God and the things of God. Jesus, in the first of his sermons recorded in Luke’s Gospel, the "sermon on the plain", speaks of this as well. "Blessed are they..." he says; or, in other words, "Happy with an abiding joy are they..." Jesus refers to things that cause suffering in this world, but says that we will be happy for suffering it, because in the end we will receive the good things of God. In contrast, he then warns those who enjoy comfort in this world. He warns them that it will be too easy for them to forget the things of God and, thus, lose the makarios that God has planned for them. Implied in all of these statements is that the things of God are truly everlasting, while the comforts of this world are not.
The challenging thing for us today, I believe, is that the Scriptures seem to be telling us that this is a "zero sum" game: either choose the things of God and be happy or choose the things of the world and be lost. In other words, "you can't have your cake and eat it too". "But," perhaps you'll say, "don't we need the things of this world in order to do the things of God?" And the answer, of course, is “Yes, we do!” The trick—that is, the work of our Christian discipleship—is not to let the things of this world become ends, themselves: that is, to let them pull our focus away from the things of God. Rather, we must remain "detached" from them: seeing them as a means towards a greater end, which is to move ourselves and others towards the Beatific Vision. This detachment means that we must be ready to let them go if they become obstacles in our journey. (If you’ve ever tried to “Marie Kondo” your house, you’ll know that this detachment isn’t very easy to come by.)
This is why we come here, to this place set apart for the things of God, each Sunday. We come here to remind us that true and lasting joy, that is, happiness... makarios, can only be found in God and, then, to equip us with the grace that we need to live in this understanding throughout the week. (By the way, this is why it is a sin not to take a day of rest from work each week. Failure to rest leads us to believe that the things of this world are the most important. Taking a "forced" day of rest reminds us that, ultimately, it is only the things of God that matter. And so, yes, a sabbath rest is “wasted” time: wasted in the sense that it is sacrificed, that is, “made holy”, because it has been given over to God.)
Friends, let us not think that we are somehow poorer because we lack some of the niceties of this world (like a home on Greek island). Rather, let us rejoice that, in Christ, we have every grace that we need to achieve the end for which we are made: our makarios... our happiness; and let us give thanks in this Eucharist for the blessing of this grace. Then let us go forth from here to demonstrate our thankfulness by living lives focused on the things of God and, thus, on making his kingdom present among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 16th & 17th, 2019