A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world (John 16:21)
16 “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.”
17 Then some of His disciples said among themselves, “What is this that He says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’; and, ‘because I go to the Father’?” 18 They said therefore, “What is this that He says, ‘A little while’? We do not know what He is saying.”
19 Now Jesus knew that they desired to ask Him, and He said to them, “Are you inquiring among yourselves about what I said, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’? 20 Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. 21 A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.
In verse 16, Jesus once again reminds the disciples about his imminent departure, albeit in a cryptic manner. The disciples are completely confused by his assertion that they will not see him, but then they will see him again. Of course, Jesus was referring to his crucifixion and burial, after which they would not seem him (although only for a brief while) and then his resurrection, after which they would see him again and rejoice.
When he wrote this Gospel, St. John knew what the Lord meant. And we, of course, know what Jesus meant. But of course, the disciples at the time did not have the benefit of this hindsight. We must resist the temptation to sit in judgment of the disciples, thinking they are stupid and slow to learn. Speaking for myself, I am certainly even slower to learn most of the time, and I have the benefit of the Scriptures and the Church!
It is only natural that the disciples would be confused by Jesus’ constant references to his going away (let alone to his going away and coming back!). It is even more normal for them to be a little bit frightened. But again, our compassionate Lord quickly moves from speaking of his departure to giving words of encouragement. As Fr. Farley writes: “Soon enough, after His Resurrection, they will be reunited with Him. Let them be brave, and endure this brief trial!” (282).
The events to come will certainly cause the disciples to weep and lament, while the world (in this case, Jesus’ earthly opponents as well as Satan and his demonic hosts) will rejoice. But their sorrow will quickly turn into rejoicing. To further help the disciples to understand what is to happen, and to give them encouragement, Jesus uses a metaphor that all of them understood: a mother’s giving birth.
Every woman who has given birth understands this comparison deeply and in a way that no man ever can. Childbirth is a painful process (can I get an “amen,” moms?), sometimes excruciatingly so. It causes great stress on the body, often even claiming a mother’s life in the days before modern medicine. But after the baby is born, most of the time, the mother forgets her pain and rejoices over the new life that she has brought into the world. Again, Fr. Farley’s words beautifully sum up the idea:
“The final joy completely swallows up all memory of the former pain. In the case of childbirth, the pain ends in joy and new life. It will be the same here. The pain of the Cross and of their being deprived of Him will end in the joy of reunion and in the new life of the Resurrection…As in the case of childbirth, that joy will be worth the pain!” (283).