The words of Jesus in the gospel of John 16:16-24 invite us to explore how sorrow and joy are often connected and of how pain can be the sign of immanent birth for the individual and the community and even for the age in which we live. “When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when the child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being in to the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Let us pray that whatever pain we know at this time is part of our great birthing.
What a wonderful image for anyone celebrating Mother’s Day – a woman in labour whose pain turns into joy. Mother’s Day is the day in which we give thanks for those who bore labour pains so that we might live, and for some of us we are mindful of those who we gave birth to. But in the context of this reading it is not just a sweet romantic image of motherhood. Firstly as we know not all labour ends in a happy event – mother or child can be lost. And certainly in Jesus’ time this was even more so than now. So what else might be happening?
Several of the Hebrew prophets, including Isaiah, use images of a woman in labour applied to the notion of the birth of a new age of salvation. And here in the gospel of John Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples about his departure in a little while to die and then through his resurrection to herald in the age of salvation. And he is reassuring them that no matter how difficult it will be for him and for them for a little while that eventually there will be eternal joy. So the image of birth is not so much about the individual as it is about the immanent birthing of a new age of salvation for all of humanity. But it is a process which however we must each as individuals enter into if we are to experience the joy.
I want to explore with you a little more about this connection between pain and birth, sorrow and joy which we touched upon last week with the image of Jesus as the true vine and God as the vinegrower who will prune us so that our joy may be complete.
There is a beautiful poem by the Sufi poet Kahil Gibran that describes how the two are interlinked.
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the self same well from which your laughter rises
was often-times filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper the sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine
the very cup that was burned in the potters oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit
the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous look deep into your heart and you shall find
it is only that which has given you sorrow,
that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart,
and you shall see that in truth you are weeping
for that which has been your delight.
Some say ‘Joy is greater than sorrow’,
others say ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater’.
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come,
and when one sits along with you at your board,
Remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
Sorrow and joy are both responses to what we love and value and over time we can know both sorrow and joy in response to the same person or thing. Loving makes us vulnerable to great joy but also to great suffering.
And I think another truth is also being hinted at. That it is through suffering and pain that we learn what most deeply and truly makes for joy. And I say this because Jesus says that in a little while, after the pain has turned into joy, that his followers will be able to ask for anything and it will be given them.
At face value this is difficult teaching for it is a wonderful sounding promise but we all know how desperately we have asked for something at various times and it has not been granted in the way we asked: the healing we have asked for ourselves and others; the clear direction we have asked for when facing big decisions. Is it that we have not believed enough?
I think the hint is in the order of the promises: firstly there will be suffering that turns into joy, and then you can ask for anything. I wonder if Jesus is not telling us that only after we have been hollowed out and emptied out by sorrow and suffering will we know what to ask for and when we know what to ask for it will be granted to us.
Suffering and sorrow can teach us that the love of God can be found in illness as much as in health, in failure as readily as in success, as profoundly in a short life as in a long life. This is the insight and understanding that underpins the Ignatian Spirituality some of you will be familiar with.
Ignatius of Loyola was a knight who was terribly injured in battle and while convalescing (he never fully recovered his former strength) he observed that the comfort of God was often found in the less heroic of stories and ideas and over time he developed a whole discipline of spiritual life that sought to find God in all things.
The first and founding principle is: “The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit. All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily. As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the centre of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal. In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in a balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success of failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.” (St Ignatius as paraphrased by David L. Fleming S.J., in “Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits”, The Institute of Jesuit Resources, St Louis, 1993)
When I first read this I was shocked – of course I prefer health to sickness, wealth or at least comfort to poverty, a long life rather than a short one etc. And yet I also accept that God is to be experienced in all situations including those I would not go seeking, those I am quite frankly afraid of.
And so I glimpse that it may only be through suffering and sorrow that I am made empty enough to allow in the grace of God and only then will I know rightly what to ask for: when my prayer will be for the awareness of God’s presence rather than my health, when my prayer will be for my capacity to love rather than to be loved, when my prayer will be for God’s will and not my preference.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and turn our pain into joy.