For about forty years Kathleen and I went to her brother’s house, to Will and Helen’s, for thanksgiving dinner. Initially, we weren’t even engaged. But, eventually, we got married and began to bring our children, then their spouses and then the grandchildren. These dinners became a tradition in the family and we used to say that if you brought a girlfriend or boyfriend to Thanksgiving dinner at Will and Helen’s then you had to marry them. We only missed a few Thanksgiving dinners during this time; several when I was in the service and once when we decided to go skiing instead. And the year when we went skiing, we all decided that we should have gone to Will and Helen’s because we missed being with the family.
These dinners were happy events. After all, we say Happy Thanksgiving. The Latin word for blessed in today’s Gospel, beatitudo, can also be translated as ‘happy’. So, Jesus is telling us nine different ways to be happy. He says: “Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, happy are the meek, happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, happy are the merciful, happy are the pure in heart, happy are the peacemakers, happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and happy are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely in my account.”
Some of these ways to be happy are not what we would expect. To understand this teaching of Jesus, these beatitudes, we need to better understand what happiness is. Today, many associate happiness with “having a good time” that is, pleasure or comfort. But, long term happiness is spiritual and moral and not emotional and pleasurable. The saints in heaven are supremely happy, because they’re with God, the source of all happiness. Happiness, then, is joyful, flowing from the life of God. The one thing we all desire is joy. Jesus tells us in the beatitudes how to find true joy and happiness.
Now, a funeral mass might seem like a strange place to talk about joy and happiness. But, if we truly believe in eternal life with Jesus in heaven, then this is the perfect setting to speak of happiness. Death for those who are following Jesus isn’t meant to be a sad event. Instead, it is a transition from the trials and suffering of this life to eternal joy with Jesus in heaven.
Happiness in heaven is what we all are striving for, but we might not realize it. We might look for happiness in the things of this world, like money or power or pleasure or honor. But, eventually, even if we achieve some of these things, we come to realize that they only satisfy us for a short time and then we look for more. Ultimately, we are looking for the joy which only God can offer us.
In his apostolic letter, Pope Francis recently wrote: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. … With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.”
I’ve known Helen for over forty years. And to me, she always seemed to be happy. I know that she had trials in her life, as we all do, but she endured these trials gracefully and maintained a joyful disposition. She let God lead her as she persevered through the difficulties of life. Our first reading from the book of Proverbs described the ideal wife by saying: “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs at the days to come. She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel. Her children rise up and praise her. Her husband, too, extols her.” That was Helen.
Several weeks ago, my wife and I visited Helen in the nursing home and then in the hospital. It was obvious that her days were numbered. Where we once were praying for her to recover; now we prayed that her suffering would end soon. Last Saturday, her trials and suffering came to an end. She lived a long life and now has transitioned from the trials of this life to eternal life.
All of us are dying. For some, death will come in days or months. For most, it will be many years. We all will take this journey from life through death to everlasting life or everlasting death. Even Jesus, the Son of God, made this journey. Out of love for us, he came to earth just like us and died like we all must die. Jesus death and resurrection provide hope and consolation to all of us. He has shown us the way to everlasting life. And through him, we obtain everlasting life.
May we bear our trials and suffering with grace and perseverance as Helen did even during her final days. May all of us here and especially Will, Greg, Dan, and Rob find hope and courage during this difficult time. And, through the love of our merciful and forgiving God, may we experience true joy and happiness in this life and in eternal life.