“Listen to the reed how it tells a tale,
complaining of separations –
Saying, ‘Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed,
my lament, has caused [humans] to moan.’”
These lines were composed by the Persian Sufi poet Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, more commonly known in the West as Rumi. They are from his masterwork the Masnavi-ye-Ma’navi, part of the opening segment called “The Song of the Reed.”
In this poem, a reed is hollowed out to make a flute, and sings with mournful longing for the reedbed – its source. Despite its homesickness, this song is an act of bittersweet worship which the reed is proud to offer.For Sufis, Muslim mystics, this story is an illustration of the soul’s longing for the divine, its Source. This story is why, if you ever go to see the whirling dervish ceremony in Turkey, you’ll notice it begins with a solo improvisation on the reed flute.
“Every one who is left far from [their] source
wishes back the time when [they were] united with it.
In every company I uttered my grieving cry;
I consorted with the unhappy and with them that rejoice.”
Locked up in prison, John receives word of Jesus, and sends his disciples to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ answer is coded – he couldn’t send them back to, in the hearing of Herod’s prison guards, relay the message, “Yep, definitely the Messiah, and by the way I’m staying on 1234 Capernaum Drive!”
It wasn’t time yet.
The coded message includes a list of wonders that people have witnessed Jesus perform. I will briefly note that back then wider society viewed disability as limitation rather than difference, and so the lifting of such so-called limitations was seen as freedom and integration. But even that assumption is subverted as we remember Isaiah’s earlier proclamation that “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” – talk about God creating accessibility! Today we might re-imagine these transformations as liberation not from one’s body but from being viewed by others as pitiable or less-than. If current society disables, the Kingdom ables, extending fullness of life to all bodies.
This is what Jesus promises, enacts, and, eventually, embodies himself.
His message to John, while coded, contains the answer: Yes. I am the Messiah.
The disciples of John leave to relay this information, and Jesus turns back to the crowds. While the writer of Matthew wants to make clear that John is not the Messiah, they still want us to know that John was an important prophet pointing the way.
Jesus’ rhetorical questions about John might be a bit puzzling, but having heard about John’s clothing of camel’s hair in last week’s reading, the “soft robes” comment makes more sense. “If you were looking for a rich guy, joke’s on you.”
But now – finally – we’re back to the reed. What does Jesus’ reed comment mean?
Well, one answer is that the reed was associated with Herod, as well as mansions and stately homes built along the banks of the Jordan. Imagine some rich guy coming to take in the late morning sun on his waterfront patio only to notice a bunch of people getting dunked in the river by some howling nutbar in a camel’s hair tunic!
So the reed, linked to Herod and wealth, makes sense when joined to the soft robes comment.But I wonder if there might be another, more playful and mystical understanding we can glean from it on this Sunday of joy, with help from Rumi as we draw close to the anniversary of his death, observed by Mevlevi Sufis all across the world on December 17th.
While studying the Masnavi with Omid Safi I learned how reed flutes are made. A reed is sourced, dried, cut, and hollowed out with a knife. Then, to make the holes, a white-hot cylinder of metal is pressed against the stalk, before the whole thing is oiled and cured. An intense process of transformation, most of which involves emptying. This process, Omid explained, is understood by Sufis as a metaphor for surrendering the ego, making space for God to dwell within, and offering up a prayer of longing for the original oneness between the soul and its Source.
We can see then that, in a sense, John was a reed after all – but not one shaken by the wind, tossed about every which way without any grounding. He was filled with the wind, made hollow through acts of worship and purification, and offered that wisdom to others so that they might also become like him.
But he was not the Messiah – only the messenger. Remember, until you add breath, a flute is just an empty reed. And in John’s case, it wasn’t just ordinary breath he was telling us to prepare for. It was the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Rumi straight-up makes this connection, writing:
“The noise of the reed is fire, it is not wind:
whoever has not this fire, may they be nothing!
It is the fire of Love that is in the reed,
It is the fervour of Love that is in the wine.”
Jesus, One who baptizes with fire and breathes peace into us, still points to John to show us a model of faith. But he says those in the Kingdom to come will be even greater than John.
So, friends, I wonder – if the call is to make our house fair as we are able, if the call is to make space through which air and fire can flow and within which a refugee family can find shelter, how can we make room?