I ride the Metro bus from downtown Los Angeles out to the Valley. People get off, people get on. No one smiles. No one looks directly at anyone else. Mostly they stare, mesmerized in their own private thoughts. Some anesthetize themselves with earphones that tune them into a different world. If you live in a big city, you understand the averted eyes. You know the fear. So many people, so close together, and scared to death of smiling.
I see many people on board, some in uniforms, others with packages from shopping. Still others carrying books to or from a class. But no smiles.
A smile is a sign of humanity. A sign that we are willing to communicate. That our sadness, no matter how deep, will not overcome us. But for many on that bus journey, there is no joy. Their lives, I suppose, are full of pain and hopelessness.
Trapped in dead-end jobs they do not like.
Trapped in a cycle of unemployment and welfare.
Trapped in marriages.
Trapped in singleness.
Trapped in divorce.
Trapped in widowhood.
Trapped in life.
And without a smile.
A smile, too, is a sign of hope. Of hope in another person. Of trust. If I smile at you, if I let my personality bridge the distance between us in a packed city bus, perhaps you’ll smile back. Perhaps you’ll connect with me. And so I smile in hope, and am met with eyes turned away, of body language that protects itself from those closest by, with a posture designed to avoid contact, personal contact, on a crowded bus.
The lack of a smile is loneliness personified, I guess. It is not letting oneself relate. It is being surrounded, but lonely — desperately lonely — yet are afraid to smile, for that would break the loneliness and threaten the solitude. So they do not smile.
They do not smile, I suppose, mainly out of fear. Fear of me. Fear of the person next to them. They’ve heard stories of robberies and purse-snatchings, of abduction and rape, of people who are not what they seem. And so they do not smile. Especially on a bus full of people all headed the same direction. They do not smile. They are scared to death of smiling.
I wonder how Jesus greeted people? With a grave religiosity? With a proper reserve? With a clearly defined distance from soiled humanity? No. He felt the jostling of the crowds. He touched the unclean. He stopped and inquired, “Who touched me?”
I don’t think he was afraid to meet people’s eyes with his own. I think he smiled into their soul a smile of hope that would ignite hope within them. A smile of friendship and acceptance to tantalize and then gently unwind that tightly-coiled loneliness. A smile of fearlessness willing to handle our pent-up hostilities and agendas and not-so-pure motives.
Jesus, I think, is God’s smile towards his world, towards his very lonely and divided and fearful world. All heading the same direction on the same crowded bus.
One Man began to smile and refused to stop until he had the attention of all who dared lift their eyes to his. And then, one by one, the crowd of people began to smile, too, for his was a contagious smile, an open smile. And they began to smile with him in a new and friendly freedom.
God’s smile in Jesus begets faith in us. God’s smile through our faces communicates that faith, as well. And that tenuous faith, that hope-filled faith, once rooted in a human heart, produces a joy that cannot suppress an ever-widening smile of its own.