“Your sorrow will be turned to joy”: sermon on the third Sunday after Easter

“You shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice.”

Why does our Lord tell His apostles at the Last Supper that they will weep and lament, but that the world will rejoice? Most obviously, He is talking about His approaching death; but He is also looking further ahead, to their future lives as apostles, which He sees will be filled with many different trials. As He tells them elsewhere, “They will deliver you up to the synagogues and to prisons, dragging you before kings and governors, for my name’s sake.”

In fact, it is not only the apostles to whom His words at the Last Supper apply, since we heard St Paul tell us last week, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” This week, St Peter, for his part, assumes that the pagans are attacking the first Christians as “evil-doers”. That may surprise us; surely, it should have been the other way around? But no, many pagans were accustomed to accuse our first fathers of being impious and atheists, because they wouldn’t worship the gods of Greece and Rome. Something a bit similar happens today when Catholics are accused of being hateful for not welcoming so-called “reproductive rights”, or so-called “equal marriage”, or whatever may be the unfortunate slogan of the day.

But this all raises an interesting question. Why are the promises of the gospel so different from those of the Old Testament? In the Old Testament, God promised the people that if they obeyed His Law, things would go well with them in this life: they would have many and healthy children; their farms would abound with crops and cattle; they would have victory in war and freedom from natural disasters. But none of these things is promised to us in the gospel. Instead, we hear, “You shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice.”Yet the gospel is meant to be good news: so why this difference?

In the Old Testament, God was treating His people like children. If you want to make a small child behave well, then it’s no good talking to him about the beauty of virtue; you have to promise him a treat if he behaves, or perhaps threaten to spank him if he doesn’t. In the Old Testament, the earthly prosperity that God promised His people if they behaved well — the abundant harvests and so on — was God treating them like little children. Now that Christ has come and given us the Holy Spirit, we have begun to grown up a bit. And a father doesn’t treat his adolescent sons in the same way as he treats his small children; instead, he invites them to begin to share in his own labours. So, our Lord invites us to take some share in His own labour. What is His labour? Redeeming the world.

But there’s another reason, also, for the difference between the Old Testament and the New. In the Old Testament, not even the greatest friends of God, like Abraham or Noah, could hope to enter the kingdom of heaven immediately after death. They had to go to a place of waiting, what we call “the Limbo of the Fathers”. And although God was able if He wanted to assuage the pain, that time of waiting would in itself have been painful. But that meant it could purify the righteous men and women who died before Christ from whatever smaller faults still clung to them when they left this world. 

For us who live after Christ’s death, things are different. By His Passion, He has opened up the way to the kingdom of heaven. But that means that in principle, we can enter there immediately after death. And God our Father doesn’t want us to remain away from Him any longer than necessary. But we also know, as St John says, that “nothing defiled shall enter heaven”. That is why God allows tribulations to befall His friends nowadays, more than in the Old Testament: it’s so that we can be purified during this life, and ready to enter heaven as soon as possible after death.

But finally, are our lives here below then to be nothing but trials, with all joy postponed till later? No: “Your sorrow will be turned into joy.” Those words of Jesus to the apostles were fulfilled on Easter Day, and the apostles’ joy remained always with them from then on, deeper than all their trials. And since Christ is still risen and with us in the Blessed Sacrament, we can even now experience the truth of His promise, “I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.” May we each begin to taste that joy in this life, and may it be made perfect for all of us together in the life to come.