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Second Wednesday of Advent - Easy yokes and light burdens?

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

There have been many surprising things for me about life in the Dominicans. Perhaps the most surprising of all is that I now think I know less about God than I did before I entered the Order. In searching for God as He is, I’ve had to shed a lot of ideas about God as I wanted Him to be. I doubt I’m the first friar this has happened to, and in any event, nobody should want to take comfort in false notions, particularly not if you’re seeking to join an Order with the motto ‘Veritas’.

Not to compare myself with a prophet(!), but there seem to be similar themes in today’s reading from Isaiah: ‘“To whom could you liken me and who could be my equal” says the Holy One . . . . The Lord is an everlasting God . . . his understanding is beyond fathoming’ (Isa. 40:25,28) .

However, such an awareness of the limitations of our knowledge of God should not be an occasion for lament; it can, in fact, increase our sense of awe and our gratitude for the great marvel of our very being. What is more, it should also serve to make us even more grateful for God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. No longer are we limited to natural theology for our knowledge of God; with the advent of the Incarnation we can know God as a person.

We are privileged to live after the first coming and to have the witness of the Church, which hands on to us the words and example of Jesus, and provides a place of genuine encounter with Christ in the sacraments. The words which the Church gives us in today’s Gospel are pithy, but they give us plenty to ponder.

Jesus tells us, ‘Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light’ (Mt. 11:29) .

But what does this actually mean? Those of us who are striving to live the Christian life will almost certainly testify that it is not always easy. And whilst these words seem to be part of Jesus’ ongoing critique of the Pharisees, who ‘bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but [who] themselves will not move them with their finger’ (Mt 23:4), he is most certainly not saying that our conduct no longer matters. He makes this last point very clear when he says: ‘Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished’ (Mt 5:18) .

All of which can leave us feeling rather perplexed. Brendan Byrne SJ acknowledge as much in his book, Lifting the Burden, saying that ‘there is no easy way around the apparent inconsistency between Jesus’ Torah interpretation in the Sermon and the claim of “ease” and “lightness” he makes [in today’s Gospel]. Fortunately, though, he doesn’t just leave us with a problem. Byrne suggest that this ‘may be an area where resolution is not possible in theory but only in the personal life of individual believers’.

It is here that we do well to turn to, and to learn from, the lives of the saints and the most committed Christians we know. We might consider the irrepressible Gospel Joy of Pope Francis. His office carries an unimaginable burden, and yet he is effervescent. We might consider the serenity of the martyrs in the face of excruciatingly painful tortures and death.

The only explanation for the lightness of a heavy burden in such cases is that the yoke is Christ’s and the burden is not of Him. Christ is the fulfilment of the Law, and in following Him we keep the Law most fully. We do not need a degree to follow Christ and the Christian life is not primarily about ethics, even though it is ethical. Pope Benedict tells us that ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’ That new direction is characterised by love and it is love which enables the ordinary to live in an extraordinary way. It is love which can turn a previously vain girl into a mother who unthinkingly gets up in the middle of the night, night after night, to comfort her child, who doesn’t have time to put on make-up anymore and yet now possesses a beauty previously unseen. It is love of the other which can turn a selfish boy into a man who would give his life for others in service.

At Christmas love comes into the world in the form of a child and during Advent we need to look at our lives and make sure we clear all the barriers that might stop us from responding to that love. And that’s where I think the real burden of the Christian life lies; it’s in trusting enough in the love of a vulnerable child to do away with all the crutches we put in place in case it wasn’t enough. It might mean being open to the richness of new life even though it might make us poorer; obsessing less about material things in order that we might be more free; or concentrating less on getting online ‘likes’ and on loving more in life.

Br Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Br Toby Lees is a deacon based at St Dominic's Priory in London but assigned to the Priory of San Clemente in Rome for reasons of study. He is completing his STB at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas ("Angelicum") in Rome.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org


Anonymous commented on 10-Dec-2015 10:44 AM
i like to ponder on light.... the yoke is easy because the burden is being the light.

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