“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
Pentecost 5 July 9, 2018
Matt. 11:16-19; 25-30
ALL YOU WHO LABOUR
Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Truly, these must be some of the most comforting words in the whole of Scripture! In them, Jesus addresses the whole human race, and yet by them he calls each single one of us by name, for his words touch the deepest, hidden part of our souls, the place where we know ourselves to be anxious, confused, scared. “Take my yoke upon you . . . and you will find rest”: in other words, “do not be afraid,” but be reassured that the anxiety and confusion are not what is most true, and so he sets our souls free.
In a thousand ways, we labour and struggle to hide our confusion and fear from our neighbours and from ourselves. We tell ourselves and tell others stories about who we are, stories which are most persuasive the more completely we are convinced by them ourselves. Think of all the stories on Facebook. Everyone is having fun on Facebook. Everyone is cool, or adventuresome; everyone posts pictures of the great party, the amazing holiday, the happy family. “This is me!” That is what we want to tell the world and ourselves. It keeps the anxiety at bay. And if the anxiety begins to bubble up between the cracks, we are advised to seek medical attention. The doctors will fix us. But the pills do not cure the anxiety; they can only treat the symptoms. Or we go get a tummy tuck, our eyes done, a boob job. But surgery cannot cure the anxiety, the fear that death is catching up. Surgery can only treat the symptoms, at least for a while.
Now, I would never say to go off your meds, if you need them. Medication certainly can help provide the emotional stability needed even to begin to contemplate the peace that only our heavenly father can provide. I would never say that it is wrong to want to look and feel healthy. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and it is good to care and to adorn them just as we adorn the Church and the altar. But I am saying that our Facebook selves that we so desperately cling to, that narrative of happy competence, or of the busyness by which we prove how indispensable we are, or even the story of suffering which we make ‘our story,’ we cling to these so desperately because of that nagging fear we hardly dare to look at directly, the fear that the anxiety in the end tells the true tale, that there is nothing but the story – which means, of course, that when the story is over, the story is over. So we post our Facebook story – even if we are not on Facebook, we all still have our Facebook story – which we need to prove to ourselves and the world: See! I am alive! See! I matter! I am living life to its fullest! I am grasping life by the horns! . . . But the nagging doubt will not go away: if life is just about ‘grasping life by the horns,’ if life is about nothing but the story, then it is not about very much! And so we begin to plan the next adventure, the next party, even the next catastrophe, in order to prove (to ourselves as least), that we are still alive!
“Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Cutting through the turning wheel of our confusion: the voice of Jesus. It is as if his words open the blinds – in a room we did not notice, until that moment, was almost dark: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” At the moment he begins to speak, I am not sure we understand exactly what his invitation means, where it will lead us, or how even to take in the light that illuminates our hearts when we hear it. But when we hear it, we do begin to understand one thing: that the hope our souls have been hungering and labouring for, perhaps without our even knowing it – is being offered to us. Jesus is reassuring us, to the unspeakable relief of our souls, that our Facebook story, however convincing, is not and doesn’t need to be the true story. The true story is not the one our anxiety compels us to tell, but the true story is the one Jesus tells and invites us to share: “Take my yoke upon you . . . for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We labour in anxiety, we cling as to a life-preserver, our own stories. But Jesus wants to free us from anxiety, free us from every false thing that we hold on to, and so he invites us all to make his story also our story. But this is where it gets a little tricky. For although Jesus says to us, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he also says, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
What can we make of this? Far from being light, the Cross seems the heaviest of all burdens. And yet what exactly does Jesus mean by ‘our Cross?’ Is our Cross not, perhaps, precisely that Facebook story which is bound up with anxiety – the anxiety that tells us that we are nothing but our own story; the nagging anxiety that even that story comes to nothing in the end! What is my Cross but the anxiety which keeps me from letting go of my story? What is my Cross, but my strange inability to take up my Cross and follow Jesus – even when I believe that only where Christ goes is there freedom (even when it seems like a burden to me); only where he goes is there rest (even when it seems like labour to me); only where he goes is there life (even when it seems like death to me).
And isn’t it just this that St Paul is wrestling with in his Letter to the Romans – wrestling, you can hear him! – with his own soul. “Even,” Paul writes, “even when I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,” even when my heart is illuminated by the story of Love into which Jesus invites me, yet “I still see another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin . . . wretched man that I am!” Wretched, because Paul is caught on the wheel we are all caught on – knowing in faith that Christ alone is the ‘the way, and the truth, and the life,’ but so caught up in death’s terrible logic that we are unable to get off that wheel, unable to let go of that life which I know to be false but which I cling to as my truth. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
There is only one who can save us from ourselves: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This is love: that even when the lightness of his yoke proves to be more than we can bear, he promises to carry our Cross for us. Even when our faith and our trust in him fail, he will carry us through. That, my friends, is grace, the lightest possible burden. Why is it so difficult for us to have faith enough just to let him carry our Cross for us?