Webster’s Dictionary defines the word burden as a weight which is carried only with difficulty. Yet for most of us, a burden is a bit more personal than that. Our burden could be the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, an addiction, an illness, problems at home or problems at work; for each of us, it is something different.
There is good news for us in this morning’s Gospel, as Jesus offers an invitation to all who carry a burden of any kind:
“Come to me,” He says. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
What a consolation, to know that Jesus does not leave us to carry our burdens alone. “Come to me,” He says. And then He offers us a curious expression:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
Take my yoke upon you. A yoke is a plowing instrument, where two oxen are joined together—yoked together by a simple piece of wood—in order to pull the plow behind them.
There is a legend that, in his carpenter’s workshop, the young Jesus of Nazareth specialized in making these yokes. It was a tricky business, because the wood had to be crafted just right. If the yoke was too tight, it would dig into the animals, choking them. The legend has it that the yokes Jesus made were always perfect; they were made to fit easily, making the burden seem light.
Legend or not, Jesus invites each of us to receive the yoke that He himself has made, the very means of carrying our burdens not by ourselves, but with His help.
I’m sure you have probably heard the James Taylor song Fire and Rain. When it first came out in 1970, it was the song that launched his career. It placed him in the spotlight, and put him on the cover of Time Magazine.
About that same time, Taylor appeared on the Johnny Carson Show, and Carson asked him about the lyrics to that song. In particular, he was curious about one of the verses which said:
Won't you look down upon me Jesus
What most people did not know at the time, was that Fire and Rain was written when Taylor was suffering from depression and drug addiction. He shared with Johnny Carson how he wasn’t a very religious person, but he nonetheless felt, somehow, that Jesus was the only one who could help him.
Hopefully we won’t have to come to the point of desperation that James Taylor came to in order to realize that we need Jesus to help us carry our burdens. His invitation is extended to all of us:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.
Jesus wants us to come to Him and join our burdens to Him. And when we do that, when we surrender ourselves to Christ, we begin to learn from Him. We become more meek, more humble of heart. We become more like Jesus. That’s the positive side of the burdens we carry. God is able to use even our suffering and our struggles to make us more like Christ.
And even more than that, when we join our burdens to Christ, when we take His yoke upon us, we actually participate in His work of redeeming the world. He allows us to participate in His suffering, to share in the cross that He endured, and so to also share in his mission of redemption.
Everyone here this morning is familiar with the fact that, in May of 1981, an attempt was made to assassinate Pope John Paul II. His recovery was slow and painful, and for many months he was forced to carry a difficult burden, but one that he nonetheless shared with Christ; he was truly yoked to Christ in his suffering and all throughout his recovery.
About two years later, Pope John Paul II released one of his most personal documents, called On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering (Salvifici Doloris). In that document, he talks about the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering, that even our own suffering, our own burdens, can be joined to Christ and offered up for the salvation of others. He says:
In the cross of Christ not only is the redemption accomplished through suffering. [in other words, not only are we redeemed as persons] But also human suffering itself has been redeemed.
Our suffering, our burdens, painful as they may be, are not meaningless. Christ is able to give meaning to our lives and even to our crosses, when we unite them to His cross, and take His yoke upon us.
And so whatever burdens we carry today, and in the days ahead, we thank God that He has not left us to carry them alone. We are yoked to Jesus, who helps us to carry our burdens, and even allows us to participate in His work of redeeming our fallen world. Being yoked to Jesus, might we find rest for ourselves, because, as He tells us in this morning’s Gospel, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.