Pagan vs. Christian Happiness

(Homily for Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A)

Four centuries before Christ, Aristotle stated, “To judge from the lives that men lead, most men...identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure.” The great Greek philosopher did not share that view. On the contrary, for him the happy man “will be engaged in virtuous action and contemplation, and he will bear the chances of life most nobly and altogether decorously.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chapter 10)

I sometimes smile to myself when people say that we are falling back into “paganism” or that people today are “acting like pagans.” I know what they are trying to say, that our conduct is often decadent. But the fact is that pagans were probably more serious about virtue than we are today. The thinkers they admired most, like Aristotle or Seneca, placed much emphasis on the pursuit of a virtuous life. They went into great depth analyzing virtues such as courage, justice, prudence and temperance. As I noted at the beginning, Aristotle taught that only virtuous action brings solid happiness. And Seneca stated succinctly, “If virtue precede us every step will be safe.”

The noble pagans were not so far from the teaching we heard in today’s Gospel. They knew that, while rich food, money, sexual activity, mastery over others, and so on, can lead to pleasure, those things do not necessarily bring happiness. They also knew that a person can suffer various afflictions – ill health, loss of financial resources, defeat in battle, death of loved ones - and still possess a true inner happiness. The pagans knew this, but they did not really know why.

Jesus tells us why it is possible to be happy even in the midst of afflictions. First of all, we should note that he assumes the pursuit of virtue. For example that persecution comes “for the sake of righteousness” and that those who speak evil against us, do so “falsely.” But for Jesus, the basis of happiness is much deeper than the tranquil conscience which results from striving for virtue. Jesus adds a small clause: “because of me.” That is, we will achieve happiness if we embrace misfortunes for Jesus.

That statement must have shocked Jesus’ hearers – at least the ones who were paying careful attention. He seems to be implying that we can only be happy if we give our lives completely over to him.

Yes! Strive for virtue – as Aristotle and all the noble pagans advise. But when - like them - we fall short, come to Jesus. Virtue might be its own reward, but it can never be its own end. In Jesus alone is lasting happiness.


Spanish Version

From Archives (Fourth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2017: Hidden Wisdom Week 1- Beatitudes
2011: The Four Daughters of God
2008: Maybe Yes, Maybe No
2005: Pagan vs. Christian Happiness
2002: How to Achieve Happiness
1999: Catholic School & Culture of Death

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