The passion and death of Jesus are a mysterious page in the New Testament. Why the mystery? Because it is not clear at first sight why Jesus had to go through such a brutal and painful death ‘to save the world’.
This is why the Church has had recourse to various symbols to understand this deep reality. The symbols are many – firstly, from the prophets and the psalms of the Old Testament; and secondly, the various metaphors Jesus himself used to get himself across to his disciples.
One of these was the sign of the ‘bronze serpent,’ which when lifted on a stake in the middle of the camp, brought salvation to all who gazed upon it. Said Jesus of himself, “when I am lifted on the cross, I will draw all men to myself.”
In today’s passage, the symbol is that of the ‘birthpangs’. A woman in labour is in pain because her time has come; but when the child is born, she forgets her anguish in her joy of giving birth. Jesus applies the metaphor to himself. The realization that his passion is upon him is a source of agony and distress. This distress is shared by his disciples who cannot quite fathom why this must be so – like children who cannot understand a death in the family – but are still distraught because their Master will soon be taken away from them forever. But as a mother knows that the pains of delivery will soon be transformed into the joys of childbirth, so too Jesus saw his cross as the sign of his victory and glory. The righteous man suffered and died unjustly, but his death was the means of salvation for the whole world.
Thus the passion and suffering of Jesus became the pattern for the whole community.
The early Christian community saw the times of persecution in the same way. It seemed like the end of the world, but their faith told them that the Lord would come again, in glory and in power, and that then “no one will rob you of this joy.”
This is what the Spirit of the risen Jesus does by bringing understanding, confidence and joy. We are all witnesses of this!