In the spring of 203, a new era in human happiness began. A young North African woman was taken into custody by Roman soldiers in Carthage, in modern Tunisia. Her name? Perpetua, 22 years old, from a good family, educated, married, and nursing a child. She and a small group of companions, including her personal slave, Felicitas, defied the emperor’s decree forbidding conversion to Christ. They were promptly rewarded with a violent death.
On March 7, Perpetua, Felicity and their group was fed to wild animals, mauled, and slain by the sword before jeering spectators. Bloodsport was common in the ancient world. But these young disciples gave a performance never before witnessed in this arena.
An eyewitness recounts that Perpetua and her companions “marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully, as though they were going to…heaven, with calm faces…with joy rather than fear.” When they were scourged and taunted, “they rejoiced…as though they had obtained a share in the Lord’s suffering.”
They greeted death with open arms. The uncomprehending crowd was witnessing what Darrin McMahon, in his Happiness: A History, describes as “a radical new vision of human happiness.”
The Christian martyr gave the world a new vision of human happiness. Her identification with the crucified and risen Christ blazed a new trail of human blessedness and fulfillment. In the Greek New Testament, the word for “martyr” is the word for “witness”. In the midst of suffering, the martyrs bore witness to a reality that was beyond the pain and suffering of this world. They bore witness to a life obtained through the pain and suffering of this world.
A 2009 romantic comedy starring George Clooney, Up in the Air, envisions life differently. On the day of his wedding, Jim has cold feet. He tells Julie, his fiancée that he is backing out.
Julie’s Uncle Ryan, played by Clooney, must engineer Jim’s return to the altar. The problem is that Ryan is a free-wheeling bachelor who has never been married, never wants to marry and doesn’t even want a “significant other.”
Glum Jim explains that last night he laid in his bed thinking “about the wedding, the ceremony and about us buying a house and moving in together and having a kid and then another kid and Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Spring break and football games and then all of a sudden they’re graduated, they’re getting jobs and they’re getting married and I’m a grandparent and then I’m retired, I’m losing my hair, I’m getting fat and then the next thing you know I’m dead and I can’t stop from thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ I mean, ‘What is the point?’”
Ryan, taken aback, asks, “The point?” Jim replies, “Yea, what am I starting here?” Ryan concedes all leads to our demise. We’re running clocks that can’t be slowed down. We all end up in the same place and, yeah, there is no point!
Jim and Ryan never met anyone like Perpetua and Felicity even though they live in a culture filled with self-identified Christians.
Happiness isn’t natural but it is possible. It is more than engineering our feelings or arranging the perfect circumstances for our comfort. Read endless self-help books or enjoy the dizzying distractions and entertainments available to us. Ingest illicit substances and feel the god-like to power to adjust our mood with a drink, pill, injection or trip to IKEA. Happiness isn’t found therein; it is found in God’s design for human blessedness described in Scripture.
In the Psalms and the Beatitudes we hear: “Blessed is he who….” Blessed means joyful, fulfilled, satisfied, happy. Happiness is available. He turns our mourning into dancing. We might weep in the night, but joy comes in the morning. The cross is necessary but the resurrection assures us that human life can end in light, laughter, glory and triumph.
Is this promise trustworthy? “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given you besides.” Jesus teaches that if we seek righteousness more than happiness, we’ll get both. The happy one has stopped trying so hard to be happy. He examines his conscience asking: “What am I really living for? What are my fundamental allegiances? What kind of person am I created to be? How is God guiding me?”
There is a point! Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychotherapist, the late Viktor Frankl wrote:“A man who…knows the ‘why’ for his existence… will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.” We don’t invent the meaning of our existence, we discover it. For those in Christ, our meaning is found in the promise: “When a disciple is fully trained he will be like his Master.” The baptized are called to be conformed to Christ’s character. He wants to reproduce his life in us so that we might become radiating centers of love and peace, a sign of hope demonstrating a life beyond the limitations of this world. Happiness is knowing God is at work in us fulfilling the purpose for which we were created and redeemed.
So, Jim and Ryan, what is the point? The point is Perpetua’s and Felicity’s choice to live inside the story that God has written and discover what God in Christ has called us to be. Let me paraphrase: “The only real tragedy, the only ultimate unhappiness, is to fail to become the saint we are created to be.”