The law of lasting joy: sermon on the third Sunday after Easter

“When she hath brought forth the child she remembereth no more the anguish for joy that a man is born into the world.”

Why is it that our Lord, in this gospel, does not answer the question of the apostles? They wish to know what he means by “a little while”. He even tells them that He knows that they want to ask what He means by the phrase; yet instead of explaining to them exactly what this “little while” is, He tells them the parable of the woman whose hour for giving birth has come. Why is this?

It seems to me that He is teaching them, above all, a law; a law which can be realised in different ways. This is the law that, in our fallen world, lasting joy can only be obtained by passing through something painful, but that the pain, however great it may seem when it is present, will appear slight and brief once it has passed. It is to teach the apostles this law that He uses the image of childbirth, just before He goes to His death.

This law was fulfilled in the lives of the apostles. A little while — less than 24 hours — after Christ spoke these words, they would see His Face no more, since He would be in the tomb and the tomb would been closed by a great stone. “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” And again, a little while after that — after some 48 more hours — they would see Him once more, when He came and stood among them in the upper room, and asked if they had anything to eat. St John says of this occasion: “Then the disciples were glad, when they saw the Lord.” And whatever happened to the disciples after that, and they had to endure many things, no one could take this gladness from them.

The same law applies to the whole of the history of the Church. Is it a long time, or a short time, that passes between the Ascension of Christ, when the Church saw Him no more in bodily form, and His second coming, when all people, as the gospel says, “will see the Son of man coming with great power and majesty”? St Augustine answers this question, and says that the history of the Church seems like a long time whilst it is still unfolding, but that when it is over we shall see how short it was. The persecutions which now press upon the Church, and bring her sorrow, like that of a woman in childbirth, will then be forgotten, or seem like something of very little moment. Then above all, after His second coming, Christ will say to His saints, “Your joy no man shall take from you”, since death, the last enemy, will have been destroyed.

But meanwhile, the same law that I have mentioned is at work in our own lives. How is it that St Peter can tell us to consider ourselves as strangers and pilgrims on earth? It is surely because, as a pilgrim’s journey is soon over, so our lives soon pass. This is something we ourselves become more keenly aware of as we advance through our life. Let anyone here who has reached middle life think over the last five years, and he will feel, I am sure, that they have passed much more quickly than the same length of time seemed to pass when he was a child. Even if we were to live to the age of Abraham, or of Methuselah, we should no doubt feel on the last day of our life that it had all gone by very quickly. This is, of course, a reason to use our time well, and to imitate, for example, St Therese of Lisieux, of whom it was said that she hated to waste a single moment knowing that time was her most precious commodity; but it is also a source of comfort, since, if we are set on doing God’s will, it means that our future happiness will soon be here. Thus the other St Therese, of Avila, said that she was always happy to hear the clock strike the hour, since it reminded her that she was one hour closer to being, as St Paul says, “at home with the Lord”.

Of course it is natural to man to have some fear of death, but St Athanasius, one of the greatest of the Fathers of the Church, tells us that, for Christians, death is no longer something terrible, since Jesus Christ has trampled it underfoot. Imagine a bride, on her wedding day, preparing to enter the church to unite her life to the man whom she loves. We should think her foolish if she was reluctant to pass through the doorway of the church because the door had somehow a rough or forbidding appearance. In the same way, the Christian need not be afraid of passing through the door for death, even if it has a rough appearance, since it is the way to be united with the Blessed Trinity. Sometimes, people are weighed down by the memory of past sins, even when they have been forgiven. In that case, the sacrament of confession is a useful remedy; every time we come before the priest in the tribunal of confession, it is a good practice for our particular judgment, when, as St Paul says, we shall each stand before the tribunal of Christ.

Our Lord, when He prepared to die, seems to wish to turn the thoughts of the apostles to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “A woman,” he says, “when she is in labour, hath sorrow because her hour is come.” The Blessed Virgin had been spared the pains of childbirth when Christ was born, since she was free from original sin and its consequences. But now, “her hour is come”; the same hour as that of Christ Himself, which He mentioned in various places in the gospel, namely, the hour of His Passion. The Lord, as He says these words, knows that Mary will be there, very soon, at the foot of His Cross, and that this will be the hour of her great compassion. The heart of Jesus and the heart of Mary will be like a single fire of charity in which He will offer Himself to the eternal Father. And He foretells that the law of sorrow changing into joy will be fulfilled in her; Mary is the woman who will remember “no more the anguish for joy that a man is born into the world”. On Easter morning, she will forget her sorrow because her Son will have passed out of the condition of our mortal life into immortality, as if into a new world.

We cannot imagine this new world beyond death, any more than a child in the womb can imagine the world that awaits it outside. Can we prepare for it, all the same? Yes, says St Peter, simply by aspiring to it while fulfilling, each one of us, the particular duties of his state. Christ’s words are meant for us too: “I shall see you again, and your hearts shall rejoice and your joy no man shall take from you.”