2015 Triduum II

Preaching, Theology

“When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.”

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ said a great many things to the disciples who remained around the dinner table with him. In John’s Gospel, this conversation takes up a good five chapters, compared with the two we just heard chanted out loud. It sounds like the kind of conversation which continues long after the food has been nervously picked over and all the wine has been drunk, the disciples looking down at their dirty plates or off into space while their teacher speaks. His words are intended to be a consolation, but like so many that have come before, they are also confusing. He speaks of leaving but coming back. He speaks of going to a place which he cannot be followed to. He speaks of preparing a place for all of his friends, somewhere beyond a veil of death which he has been gazing toward with an increasingly intensified clarity and determination as of late. He speaks of leaving peace behind him, an Advocate, a spirit of truth; but he also speaks of the persecution his friends will face in the wake of that leaving. “People who have hated me will hate you too, because you do not belong to this world.” In the tinderbox of that upper room, unsure of what spark will snap them from their final moments with a beloved teacher and friend and into a night of horror and violence, I can only imagine that any words of further persecution and inevitable pain were absolutely desolating. Still, Jesus insisted on the disciples taking heart. “When a woman is in labor,” he said, “she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.”

I wonder how well that image worked for Mary. I do not know what it is like to give birth. Neither did Jesus for that matter, nor John. But Mary did know, and by John’s account she was there with him, bearing witness to the whole spectacle: her beloved son, mocked and spit upon and whipped and stripped and nailed upon a tree. How could anything of what she witnessed of her son’s death on a cross that day remind her of the night she bore through her own labor with him? I struggle to imagine a mother seeing anything other than the worst kind of death in that scene: senseless and useless, another bright, bold boy unafraid to speak the truth to power killed by a system bent on it’s own self-preservation. What could possibly be redemptive about that? In my own lack of understanding, I want Mary to scream to heaven. I want her to take her “yes” back. “If this is what you had in mind, God, no thanks, I regret having made myself available. This is ridiculous. How dare anyone try to elevate such senseless violence to the level of divine self-offering?” And while she’s at it I want her to rip the pen out of John’s hand and break it in half. “Quit blaming all this on ‘the Jews!’ You’re a Jew, John. I’m a Jew. For so much of this book you’ve made the ignorant world at large our adversary, why stop now? It’s not our Jewishness that’s killing him it’s our wounded, insecure humanity. Writing ‘the Jews’ is only going to bring centuries of more bloodshed, more retribution, all the things he lived his life defying. Do not write ‘conqueror’. Do not write ‘new birth’. Do not write ‘mother’. Write, ‘this man died for no good reason.'” But John isn’t listening. His eyes are firmly fixed upon the body of his beloved, a chest now heaving and writhing with pain, a breast which he’d reclined against just the night before while Jesus spoke about the joy of never having to live apart in death again, a joy that far outweighed the pain which was about to come. “When her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.”

I do not know what it is like to give birth. Neither did Jesus for that matter, nor John. But I imagine that there is something like relief which comes when the labor is finished. I imagine that after all of the pushing and resistance there is something like release. For Jesus, who spent the entirety of his life’s work pushing against the derision of his peers and their desire that he just shut up with the nonsense he was preaching and die already, I imagine there was something like relief at finally leaping of his own free will out into the void they had prepared for him. I imagine that there is a moment in giving birth when the final push sends new life and pure undiluted possibility into the world and finally releases a mother of having to strain any longer; if only for a single moment, freedom: the battle over, the victory won. I imagine Jesus relieved to simply open up his arms and give away the thing which so many had wanted from him all along: his life, his meek and final silence. “She no longer remembers the anguish, because of the joy.”

His breathing has become more labored. John is watching from below. He looks up, thinking, “You are the one who brought me into this world. You have given me my life. You took a little boy who was afraid to speak out loud among his peers and bore him out into the fearlessness of love. Before I knew you my heart was haunted by a thousand ghosts I could not name. Now each word falls into place like poetry. You appeared before us singing of the God you came from. You came to tell us we belonged there, too; you came to take us with you. And when the world bristled at the thought, you would not stop talking openly about our love. You are my brazen torch, shouting joy in the face of the world’s sneering shame and bitter sadness. You are the bread on my table, you are my table wine, you are the vine unfurled in me, reaching for the sun. I am the child you have carried all this time. I love you. I am your love, only.”

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