They are the best of times and the worst of times, explained a bishop in paraphrase of Charles Dickens. He wrote those words while he struggled with cancer, and not long before he died. They were the worst of times, he said, because of the physical pain, anxiety, and fear with which he struggled. But they were the best of times because of the peace he came to enjoy through God’s grace.
The bishop described how, just one day after publicly announcing his impending death, he presided at a communal anointing of the sick at a parish church. In his homily, he preached that when facing serious illness or any other difficulty, we as Christians need, first and foremost, to put ourselves completely in the hands of the Lord. We must believe that the Lord loves us, embraces us, and never abandons us, especially in our most difficult moments. It is this faith, he explained, that will give us hope in the midst of life’s suffering and chaos. Then he quoted words from today’s gospel: “Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
This was one of his most cherished Scripture passages. It also happens to be a favorite passage of mine, and perhaps it’s one of yours too. It sounds very comforting and soothing- almost too good to be true! At the same time, Jesus’ words also seem to present us with a contradiction. This is because most people, including myself, don’t associate “rest” with a “yoke.” When I think of a yoke, the first image that comes to mind is that of sweaty oxen laboring to pull a plow across a muddy field- not a very refreshing or relaxing picture! Therefore, we need to ask ourselves: Just what did Jesus mean by his “yoke?”
To answer this question, we need to understand that most of the first-century Jews in Jesus’ audience believed God to be distant, unknowable, mysterious, and impersonal. Coupled with this image of God was the understanding that following him involved the keeping of 613 very specific commandments. These elaborate rules, created by the Pharisees, were often called the “yoke of the Law,” for pretty obvious reasons. To the everyday person back then, it was a cumbersome and heavy burden to bear. It must have been physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting.
Two thousand years later, things haven’t changed very much. As they did in Jesus’ time, some people today believe God to be distant, impersonal, or uncaring. They pray, but they don’t receive the answer they expect; they suffer, and conclude that God doesn’t care; they search for God, but their eyes aren’t yet open to his revelation. Other people have been “turned off” from following God, especially as a Catholic Christian, because they think it’s mostly about keeping a bunch seemingly endless rules and regulations.
Thankfully, Jesus’ words speak to us today just as much as they spoke to people back then. You see, the yoke Jesus invites us to wear isn’t a list of rules handed down by an impassionate God. Instead, the yoke Jesus refers to is Jesus himself! In other words, he is asking us to yoke ourselves to him. Because it’s only when we’re united with him that we’ll find the refreshment and rest that he promises, and that we long for. To quote the bishop we heard of earlier, “The ‘rest’ (Jesus) offers us comes from adopting and living each day his attitudes, his values, his mission, his ministry, his willingness to lay down his very life- in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.”
It’s important to stress that Jesus didn’t say that he would take away our burdens. What he did promise was to help us carry them. In other words, Jesus is saying is that if we yoke ourselves to him, the burdens we have will become lighter, because he will help us bear the load. In fact, Jesus has already taken the load from us. On the cross he took upon himself all of the suffering and agony of a broken humanity that we might be redeemed and healed. Today he invites us to add our burden to that load, so that it will be his strength, and not ours, that will bear it up. Think of it this way: A yoke joins a pair of oxen together and makes them a team. When we’re yoked with Jesus, he pulls our load alongside us, offering us the grace of hope, courage, and perseverance.
This was the experience of the dying bishop during his final days. The spreading cancer filled him with a pervasive fatigue that seemed to increase with each passing day, forcing him to spend most of his time lying down in bed. Nevertheless, he was filled with peace. He had come to know- perhaps more then than he’d never known before- that he was in the hands of the Lord: a Lord who shouldered his burden, a Lord who shared his suffering, and a Lord who waited to take him home to a place where his burdens would be no more. It’s as St. Catherine of Siena once said: “If we wish to have peace, we must rest our heart and soul with faith and love in Christ crucified. Only then will our soul find complete happiness.”
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/nab/070311.shtml