Even youths grow tired and weary, / and young men stumble and fall; / but those who hope in the Lord / will renew their strength. / They will soar on wings like eagles; / they will run and not grow weary, / they will walk and not be faint.Isaiah 40:30-31
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”Matthew 11:28-30
At the parish where I attend Sunday liturgy, there is a custom of a member of the parish giving a brief personal reflection after communion during Advent. Last Sunday the woman who is often the leader of song at the Saturday evening mass spoke. She has a very good and strong voice, and there is a joy and vibrancy in her singing that is unmistakable. She began her reflection with a question she is often asked which is why do you seem so joyful as you sing. She mentioned that this is due in part to her basically joyful disposition but also to the fact that being in church with everyone and expressing her faith in song reminded her and brought her into the joy she felt in the presence of God in the community. Then, to the shock and surprise of those of us who did not really know her, she spoke of her third of four sons who, before he was able to graduate from college, began to experience the symptoms of a serious mental illness. So, as she said, instead of visiting him at college we began to visit him at the Shepherd Pratt Institute.
Life is, often and in many ways, burdensome. Every one of us has stories to tell about the suffering in our own lives and in the lives of those we love. We all know those times when it feels as if our hearts will break or our wills be destroyed, when we are convinced that the pain and helplessness of a given moment is all just too much to bear. We know this, and yet, as I left church I could overhear people saying to each other, “How would you ever have known that she lived with that burden?”
Today’s reading from Isaiah speaks directly to the question, as did the speaker at mass. Freud spoke of the capacity to deal with the harshness of life. What both Isaiah and Jesus say today is that we can do far more than bear with that harshness. We can, in hope, “soar like the eagle,” and when we take on the yoke of Jesus, we can bear the burdens lightly and with ease. So, what is the “yoke” of Jesus? If we are to learn from him, what is the heart of his teaching?
Last Saturday night, on the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” there was a satiric take on an incident the day before when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had responded to a brash reporter’s question concerning whether or not she hated the President by saying that as a Catholic she didn’t hate anyone. Colin Jost, the comedian who was relating the story, asserted that he would have to say that Speaker Pelosi was wrong, for “as a Catholic I know, there is always one person you hate, yourself.” It is truly unfortunate that what Jesus teaches today of his yoke has, far too often, been almost the opposite of what the church has described, a yoke that is difficult and a burden that is heavy.
Be it true of ourselves or of our lives, we live with strong and controlling expectations. We are sad and suffer when those expectations are not met. There are, to be sure, harsh descriptions in the gospel. In the very preceding verses to today’s gospel reading, Jesus declares “Woe” to Chorazin and Bethsaida. But this “harshness” is but a description of reality. A gift was offered, in Jesus, and refused. So, the lack will be suffered. Jesus or God was not imposing heavy and difficult and unmeetable demands. God was offering a gift to be received, a gift that would lift the heaviness of the burden of reality and a yoke that would lighten their way.
Life is harsh because we have not yet really known how “gentle and humble in heart” is Jesus. That is, it is our harshness that makes reality so difficult and painful. We, formed by our own ego and our culture, have demands that life be a certain way, that some truths are acceptable and others are not. From the very first, we are taught what it is that makes for “a good life.” And so we exert ourselves in service to that cultural expectation. Almost from the first inklings of consciousness, we begin to foster certain desires and to repress others. The great formative task, in terms of our socio-historical dimension of personality, is to align our desires, wishes and modes of attention with those deemed worthy and significant by our culture. Even religiously speaking, one would think that to take on the yoke of Jesus is somehow to impose certain values and to do violence to those that are hidden in the gentleness and humility of our own hearts.
The Dhammapada, the sayings of the Buddha, teaches:
Look to your own nature which is intrinsically pure and rouse yourself. Look to the purity on which the world is founded and correct yourself. Look within and find happiness. (v. 379)
Perhaps one of the greatest illusions of at least American culture is that we can make of life and of ourselves whatever we want. This is one reason why we are always in search of someone or something to blame, including ourselves, when things don’t go as we would wish. A loved one’s mental illness is no one’s fault. We have a difficult time believing in the inherent purity of our own nature and of that on which the world is founded. Yet, as Isaiah tells us: “Lift up your eyes on high / and see who has created these things” (Isaiah 40:26). We are made to see the world not through the lenses of our own or our culture’s expectations, but through the “intrinsically pure” lens of awe and wonder.
In awe we stand before whatever is and allow it to evoke in that gentle, humble, and pure place in our hearts our response to it. At least for myself, I encounter many experiences and moments in life where I feel that “this is not what I signed up for or expected.” I expected that life in religious community would be without the struggles and tensions that I felt at home. I expected that as I grew older I would inevitably approximate the ideals which had always motivated me. I even dared to expect that I would live with fewer expectations. And with each thwarted expectation I can tend to become more harsh and resentful. And so, life becomes more strained and difficult.
But the yoke of Jesus is easy. In the verses of Matthew’s gospel which follow today’s reading, we see that Jesus’ teaching concerning observance of the Sabbath is quite different from the interpretations of the Pharisees. He says to them: “If you had known what this is—I wish mercy and not sacrifice—you would not have condemned those who are without guilt” (Matthew 12:7). We can recognize in the Pharisees much of what tends to afflict religious practice of all stripes over time. In pursuit of its own ideals, it ceases to be human. This is the heart of the difference in the teaching, in the yoke, of Jesus and the Pharisees. As Jesus says in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.”
Now, of course, we have replaced the yoke of religious teaching for secular, capitalist values. So, we cease to practice “Sabbath,” which was made for the sake of our humanity, in service to the gods of capital. In our time, we experience the heaviness not so much of the yoke of religious practice as that of cultural demand. In both cases what we forget is where purity resides in our own deepest nature, in the gentleness and humility of heart we share with Jesus. The yoke of Jesus is the light and easy burden, but difficult to maintain, of living from that sense of awe that characterizes the spiritual dimension of our personality.
In his classic work Leisure and the Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper warns of how easily we can become creatures of total work. Life can become, for us, nothing but burden and difficulty, one problem after another to be solved. Having now reached what for most of human history would be seen as “old age,” I recognize that at some moments the yoke is easy and the burden light. At others, when I cease to see the given moment in the light of God, I can feel that “my right is disregarded by my God” (Isaiah 40:27). The difference lies not outside but within. Do I feel the burdensome task of making things right in accord with my own culturally formed ego, or do I live the moment out of the gentle and humble heart of Jesus? From there, each moment, whatever it brings, is not a problem but an invitation to discover the purity that my own nature and that on which the world is founded shares as created and loved by God.
It was a bright spring afternoon. Tulips lined the outdoor café, drooping their heads. My mother ordered mimosas for everyone, even though my grandmother rarely if ever drank.
Was soul music playing at the café that day? I can’t remember. I only remember the insistence of my mother’s smile and laughter, and how I felt the urge to resist it—to prove a point and send a dark cloud over the day. But then, I couldn’t do it.
Maybe she was the music I’m trying to recall now. My mother’s mood caught us like a Bill Withers chorus. My grandmother burped, looking at her mimosa as if betrayed. Then she giggled, decades falling from her face for a moment. Mom and my aunt started laughing too. I smirked, at first just trying to be a good sport. But then the laughter settled into an irresistible rhythm. I bumped my shoulder into Aunt Celia, our heads leaning against each other’s for a moment. How many mimosas had we had? We all laughed louder.
Even now, I can hear it. I can hear the music ringing out. I can see my mother at the head of the table: the only one who could bring us all together, the only one who could tune us into any semblance of harmony. The sweetness was ours that day and, for once, no one at the table denied it.Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir, p. 152