Homily for the Solemnity of Epiphany, 2023.
When you’re young, it’s impossible to know what it feels like to be older. But when you’re older, it’s easy to forget what it felt like to be young. The challenges you face as an adult are much more difficult than the ones you faced as a child or teenager, but it doesn’t mean that those challenges, at the time, weren’t difficult in their own right.
A perfect example of this comes from my senior year in high school. I spent the entire summer before my senior year training for my final season of cross country. I was running forty miles a week and I was in the best shape of my life. But despite my training, I ended up having an extremely disappointing season. I only dropped a few seconds off my personal record, and at the final race of the season I got the same time as I did the year before. It was if all my training didn’t make a difference, as if it was all for nothing.
Looking back, it’s easy to dismiss this as a relatively small challenge in my life. But at the time, it felt like the worst crisis I could possibly go through. It shook my world and caused me a great deal of pain. But the blessing of this experience is that it caused me to look inward and reflect more deeply than I had ever done before. Often, it’s not until we encounter some great suffering in life that we begin to ask some of life’s biggest questions. And for me at the time, this failed cross country season—as silly as it sounds now—was the great suffering in my life.
Faced with this suffering and the questions that it posed, and being an introvert and a bit of an intellectual, I sought my answers not in person, but in a book. I went to the bookstore closest to my house and, after perusing the shelves, bought the most philosophical book I could find that was within my ten-dollar budget. The book I purchased was this one—Man’s search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist from Austria who endured the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Man’s search for Meaning is Frankl’s reflection on this experience from a psychological perspective. The book is both moving and deeply insightful. And in it, I found an idea which truly changed my life. The idea was about happiness. Happiness, for Frankl, was not something which we should pursue, contrary to everything I had been told by the culture that I grew up in. “[I]t is a characteristic of the American culture,” Frankl writes, “that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
After a failed cross country season, I was anything but happy. But I wanted to be happy: it was the thing that preoccupied me the most, the thing that I was pursuing above everything else. But I was pursuing happiness without ever asking if what I was pursuing could truly make me happy. While it took me a long time to put this idea into practice, I eventually discovered that the less I pursued happiness, and the more I pursued giving myself to what that was truly worthy of giving myself to, the happier I was in the long run.
Perhaps even deeper than our desire for personal happiness is our desire to find something or someone that is truly worthy of giving ourselves to. This is actually what we mean by worship. In English, the word “worship” is derived from the word “worthy.” We worship what we deem worthy—that is, what we deem to be of ultimate value. We all worship something or someone: it’s whatever or whomever we consider to be most valuable in life.
For most Americans, the pursuit of happiness is what guides our journey in life. We pursue happiness in that hope of finding something or someone that is worthy of giving ourselves to, that is worthy of our worship. Putting this in the terms of our gospel, happiness is the star that we follow. And we hope this star will lead us to what is of ultimate value. For most Americans, what we think is of ultimate value is a pleasant life, with lots of possessions, with people whom we love. That is what we deem worthwhile, what we consider worthy of committing our lives to.
For the magi in our gospel, what was of ultimate value, what was worthy of finding and worshiping, was the newborn king of the Jews. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” The magi did not go on their journey—a journey of many miles full of countless dangers—in pursuit of happiness. God’s will, marked by the rising and preceding star, was what they pursued, not their own personal happiness. And this star led them to the one reality in life that is truly of ultimate value, and this truly worthy of our worship: God Himself, born for us in Bethlehem.
And so the question for us is this: What star are we following in our journey through life? And will it lead us in the end to what is truly worthy of worship? If our star is our own personal happiness, the pursuit of this star will lead us, in the end, to realities that are only of secondary value and significance. The star of our own personal happiness, which will precede us indefinitely and ultimately elude us, will only lead us to pleasures that are fleeting, possessions that will fail, and persons who, despite their love of us and our love of them, will be incapable of loving and being loved to the extent that our hearts desire.
God’s will is the only star worth following in our journey through life. For this star will lead us, as it did the magi, to the only reality worthy of our worship: God Himself, born for us in Bethlehem. If we pursue this star first, rather than our own personal happiness, we will discover that true happiness will ensue. “[H]appiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue,” as Viktor Frankl said. “One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’” In God alone we find a reason—and in fact, the reason—to be happy. In God alone we find a reality that is not fleeting, that will never fail, and that is capable of satisfying our deepest desires to love and be loved. If we follow His will, as the magi followed the star, we will find what we were looking for all along. And we will be happy: reasonably happy in this life, and eternally happy with God in the next. Amen.