“What then did you go out to see?”
Sitting in anguish in a dark and dank cell, John the Baptist asked Jesus via a messenger, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
We all know Mary’s Magnificat, but do you know John’s Jingle? The English translation of the original Aramaic goes something like this:
I'll have a blue Christmas if it's not you. I'll be so blue, just thinking it's not true. Herod's wife wants my head on a platter, "Oh, dread!" - It'd be a shame if you're not deity.
Early 20th-century philosopher Kahlil Gibran said that joy and pain are inseparable. In The Prophet, he writes:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that 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 potter's 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.
“Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
TV personality Stephen Colbert has a note posted on his computer that reads, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
If you know Colbert’s comedic television persona, you’d think, “Of course, he’d say that. He’s funny, witty, successful, and wealthy. He has many reasons for joy. Do you know Colbert’s backstory of soul-piercing sorrow?
Colbert is the youngest of eleven kids, raised in a devout Catholic family. When he was ten years old, his father and two of his brothers, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash. Young Stephen was the only child still at home with his mother in the following years.
How could a man who suffered such unimaginable loss at an early age be characterized by joy? How could he see joy as evidence of God?
Colbert attributes his joy to a woman who lost her husband and two children on that same fateful day. That woman, of course, was his mother.
In an interview recounting his searing loss, Colbert would say, “I’m very grateful to be alive.” A key passageway to joy is gratitude.
Colbert continues, “That impulse to be grateful wants an object. That object I call God… That’s the context for my existence… I am here to know God, love God, and serve God so that we might be happy with each other in this world and with [God] in the next… That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom.” And then he adds – “And my dad. And my siblings.”
Colbert and his mother were left alone in a shared grief. How could his mother console him? Who would comfort her?
Colbert recounts, “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just Mom and me for a long time.”
But then he turns a hopeful corner, “And by her example, I am not bitter; by her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.”
Colbert learned the source of joy from his broken-but-not-bitter mother.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is also called “the joy of all who sorrow.” Jesus’ mother’s example of longsuffering and brokenness without the residue of bitterness is an example for us all who are afflicted this Advent season.
Jesus has learned compassion and empathy from his mother, so when John asks via a messenger, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus knows to respond to John’s brokenness and, in essence, says, “What you have sown in tears shall now be reaped in joy. People who have only known hardship and exclusion are finding new life. I know you are broken, and my heart breaks with yours.”
And then Jesus looks to the crowd and asks a penetrating question. And I believe he’s asking us today: “What then did you come here to see?”
I can’t answer that for you. Jesus tells us there is no one greater than broken John the Baptist. But then he paradoxically also states that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.
I have noted something in hosting nearly 500 asylum seekers in the past 2½ years. It’s the same thing I’ve observed in off-the-beaten-path communities of the ⅔ World, in places like Botswana, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, or Palestine. Broken people are often filled with inexplicable joy. Jesus says, “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].”
In Donald Kraybill’s classic book, The Upside-Down Kingdom of God, he writes that in Jesus’ new order, “Things are reversed. Paradox, irony, and surprise permeate the teachings of Jesus. They flip our expectations upside down. The least are greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessings. Adults become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. The pious receive curses—shattering our assumptions. Things aren’t the way we expect them to be.”
Things aren’t the way we expect them to be. Things aren’t even as they seem.
What, then, did you come here to see?
I can’t answer for you, but I can answer for myself. I came because I want a life of love, a love formed by a borderless community filled with expectant hope. And I can see that manifest itself in communities of love and grace.
Why did I come here? I came because grief and gratitude are always near me. I came because I choose love over bitterness.
I pray Jesus takes all our brokenness and, by his limitless love and grace, turns it into unspeakable joy.
What, then, did you come here to see?