Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Advent Week 2 Wednesday

Readings: Isaiah 40:25-31; Psalm 103; Matthew 11:28-30

It is a short gospel reading with a strange invitation: if you are tired and burdened, come and take this yoke on your shoulders, a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. So what is this new weight which actually makes lighter, this yoke or harness which actually brings freedom?

If you do a Google Images search for 'yoke' you will find that the first set of pictures are of a double yoke, the kind that binds two oxen together as they plough or pull a cart. Only on scrolling down do you begin to see the single yoke for one animal, or perhaps for a person carrying two buckets, that kind of thing.

So there are double yokes and there are single yokes. In the Bible the single yoke is an image of the Law. The Law was spoken of as a yoke laid on the people which was, yes, restricting but which was also the guarantee of the covenant which the Lord had made with them. This yoke gives guidance and direction, keeps the people on the straight path, helps them to live well.

This yoke becomes easy and light when it is carried out of love. If it is understood as a burden imposed from without, and its reasonableness is not understood, then it will be experienced as a heavy weight, a demanding master. But where its purpose is seen, and the life it protects is valued, and the relationship it seals is the centre of our lives, then to carry this yoke is not a burden. 'He ain't heavy, he's my brother' found its way into a popular liturgical song many years ago. Carrying one another's burdens not only fulfills the law of Christ, as Paul says, it is also easy when it is inspired and enabled by our love for one another. Carrying burdens becomes easy and light; we even find rest in doing so because it is an experience of love, and it is in love that human beings delight and find joy.

But perhaps we are to think also of the double yoke, the one that binds animals in pairs as they work together on a common task. If, in inviting us to take his yoke on us, Jesus means a double yoke of this kind, then when we look to the side to see who is in the harness with us, it is Jesus himself since it is his yoke. We are alongside him and partnering him in this work of being obedient to the Law. He is alongside us and partnering us and so, once again, it becomes easy, light, desirable, and joyful.

Take my yoke on you and learn from me, he says. What is it we are to learn? We learn that the heart of all reality is God who is love. We learn that God has set his heart on a people and that he seeks them out. We learn in this yoke of Jesus that God has first loved us, taken on himself the yoke of our sins, so that anything we do in partnership with Him always has the character of a response, an acceptance, an act of gratitude for far greater gifts won through a far more demanding sacrifice than any we might be asked to make.

This double yoke in which we are harnessed with Christ so as to share in His work then clearly anticipates that moment in the passion when Simon of Cyrene stood alongside Jesus and helped him to carry his cross. He is with us always. If we take his yoke on us and learn from him then we are with him always, shaping our lives according to his way, and giving our hearts according to a love that is, in the first place, his.

Today's first reading urges us to carry this reflection to another level. Taking up the yoke of Christ's love not only makes heavy burdens bearable, it fills us with energy for new things. We begin to live from the divine energy which is infiinite and inexhaustible. In another memorable image from Isaiah, young men may grow tired and weary but those who hope in the Lord renew their strength. Even while carrying the yoke of love (prepare for a mixed metaphor!) they put out wings like eagles, they run and do not grow weary, they walk and, still carrying the yoke of love, they never tire. It is the strength of the Holy Spirit that energises the hearts of all who love God and transforms them into chariots of fire, vessels of the Divine Love.

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