Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Yoke's on You

I wrote yesterday about the value and necessity of taking up one’s cross and following Jesus, if we are to find our true identity and the fullness of life in Him. In chapter 11 of the Gospel of Matthew (vv. 28-30), Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon us. That image is not a particularly attractive one at first glance. Here are a few definitions of “yoke”: a) a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together b) an arched device formerly laid on the neck of a defeated person c) a frame fitted to a person's shoulders to carry a load in two equal portions. Is that what Jesus wants us to take upon ourselves? The yoke is on us in that case, but it is all for our good, as we’ll see.

In the context of the doctrine of the Cross, we can accept that Jesus’ yoke is the Cross, which we accept in obedience to Him and out of love for Him. Yet He says his yoke is easy, his burden light. How can that be? First of all, any burden can be borne relatively easily if one loves enough and, as St Augustine says, even heavy labor and toil can be sweetened by love. But let’s look again at those definitions for “yoke.”

First, it is something that joins two creatures for the sake of working together (in the dictionary, “marriage” was given as a synonym for “yoke,” but we won’t get into that here). This is the communal or ecclesial dimension of cross-bearing. We are all in this together, and we offer our struggles, labors, and sufferings “for the sake of His body, the church” (Col. 1:24). The second definition refers to something placed upon a defeated person. Well, we may often times feel defeated, and perhaps at times we really are, due to our sins and culpable failures, but the paradoxical blessing here is that the yoke of the Cross placed upon the defeated person suddenly makes him victorious, raises him up, if he will only accept its bracing discipline. Finally, a yoke is a frame fitted to one’s shoulders to balance the load. We ought to be aware that the cross Jesus asks us to carry is “fitted to our shoulders,” that is, it is tailored to our needs; it teaches us what we need to know in order to serve the Lord faithfully—purified, disciplined, strengthened, enlightened. As we know from St Paul, we are not tested beyond our strength—but we are usually not aware of our capacity for endurance until it is in fact tested.

I’m reading a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which is quite good. It is entitled, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, by Joseph Pearce. He was not only a profound thinker with a mature spirit, but also a man who knew how to learn the lessons of life, and his endurance was severely tested in Soviet concentration camps and prisons. One important point he made, which ought to encourage us to take the yoke of the Cross upon ourselves, is that our life on earth is meant not for material prosperity, but for “the development of the soul.” According to this view, he came to the perhaps surprising conclusion that in the prisons, it was actually the torturers who were being punished and not the ones whom they were torturing: “…the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but…in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity…” To forsake, through cruelty or any kind of evildoing, the true dignity and nobility of one’s humanity, no matter how powerful or rich one may be, is to lose the meaning of life, and to forsake, perhaps eternally, its fulfillment. On the other hand, even in circumstances of harsh treatment or deprivation, one can, through patient endurance and an openness to learn the lessons of such experiences, actually ennoble and liberate one’s spirit, can “develop one’s soul.”

So we come back to Jesus’ offer of his yoke to bear. “Come to Me,” He says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” You see, the yokes we have fashioned for ourselves are the real burden. “I have pursued a life in love with material things, and now I wear a heavy yoke” (St Andrew of Crete). So the Lord is actually refreshing us by allowing us to exchange our heavy yokes for his light one. “Learn from Me,” He goes on, “for I am gentle and humble of heart.” When we know, really know, who it is who is asking us to bear the yoke of the Cross, we will accept it gratefully, if for nothing else than the valuable lessons we will learn.

Come to Him, then, and fear not the yoke of the gentle and humble Savior. In bearing his, we are relieved of the intolerable burden of our own, which it is imperative to shed, lest we have to bear it for all eternity. To carry the cross by following Jesus is not easy in itself, but it is easy in comparison to the consequences of not carrying it, and it is light enough in comparison to the reward of loving fidelity, even in the midst of hardships. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed…” (Rom. 8:18).

So, defeated people, wear the yoke of victory, carefully fitted to your unique shoulders, and the Lord will give you rest and renewed strength and hope. Just come to Him.