Today’s post is a reflection on the liturgical readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. You can view the scriptures by clicking here.
In the season of Juneteenth and Independence Day, the gospel Matthew gives us a yoke. It feels somehow counter-intuitive.
The only person I’ve ever seen wearing a wooden shoulder yoke was an actor at an historical park like Colonial Williamsburg, King’s Landing, or Old Sturbridge Village. They look crude and cruel to us. But whole point of a yoke was to make hard work easier: to carry heavy buckets of milk, for instance, hands free, without the handle of the bucket cutting your fingers, without your shoulders and elbows feeling as if they might separate, and—crucially—without the contents spilling (too much). To do that successfully, they also had to fit well: antique yokes were painstakingly carved, rounded, and smoothed to fit their owners’ shoulders.
The same is true of hiking backpacks today. Stuffing one with beanbags to simulate a full load and trying it on is a discouraging experience. The pack pulls on your shoulders and digs into your hips, and you’re sure you’ll be miserable ten minutes into the hike. But if you personalize it by buckling the chest strap, adjusting the load levelers, and tightening the hip strap, and suddenly the strain disappears. You can move freely, almost effortlessly. Of course, there’s such a thing as a too-heavy pack, and hiking uphill will still be harder with an appropriate load than without one. But, if the pack fits your body well and is adjusted properly, you really can carry it easily for miles and miles. Freedom!
Many of us have this experience vocationally, too. During one summer job I counted the hours in the day, grateful to be employed but gritting my teeth through answering phones and sorting tickets for a travel service. At summer’s end some of the employees told me I’d make a great travel agent and should pursue certification—and I could think only of how badly I wanted to leave the office for the last time! That yoke did not fit. Being a college professor is hard work too, but it never chafes in that way.
So I have to part company with the old children’s bible-style illustrations of Mt 11: Jesus in a field of daisies with a few male disciples resting at his feet, sheep grazing contentedly in the distance. But Jesus did not say, “take a chill, no yokes, no burdens.” He said, “If you walk with me you will have a yoke that fits you properly, comfortably, that will allow you to carry the burden that felt like too much for you before.” Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message:
“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
LGBTQ Catholics can relate, in spades. We’ve tried to be straight. We really have. And it was hard. The standard-issue yoke hurt our shoulders, and the load felt like buckets of rocks. Or we’ve tried to live in bodies that felt foreign to us, taking on identities that did not fit us. We struggled against them, and they rubbed us raw. We wanted to give up.
Until. At some point Jesus came along and said, the load is not the problem! All you need is a new yoke, one that fits you as you were made to be. Trust me, try it. You’ll feel freer and lighter. You’ll still have a burden to carry, and you’ll even have to walk uphill sometimes, but I’ll walk beside you to give you a rhythm.
Here’s the deep tragedy. Plenty of people have answered the call to live lightly in their LGBTQ skins. And the same people accepted vocational yokes too, dancing in the rhythm of grace as teachers, leaders, coaches, musicians, and counselors in Catholic parishes and schools. They’ve done it joyfully and with gratitude, out of love for God and their students and parishioners. No one would accept their accompanying burden of longer hours, lower pay, fewer resources, and job insecurity if the yoke weren’t light, if their work weren’t a matter of Spirit rather than flesh, if Jesus weren’t keeping time beside them.
That’s what hurts the most about ongoing firings of LGBTQ teachers and church workers. They’ve had practice with the risk involved in accepting the easy yoke of their identity with the joy and freedom and flourishing that it brings. They take on the easy yoke of service with the same trust and confidence in God. And then someone fearful yanks the yoke away and with it, the vocation in which they danced to the rhythm of grace. Flesh wins out over Spirit.
In this freedom season, we give thanks for the divine freedom of life in the Spirit that comes with Jesus’s yoke. And we pray that all people, everywhere, will honor the infinite array of yokes Jesus provides us, in all shapes, sizes, and colors, to fit all shapes, sizes, and colors of people—in the “unforced rhythm of grace.”
—Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, July 5, 2020