Fourteen Sunday of Ordinary Time-A
Without insulting anyone’s intelligence, a quick review of the terms Jesus uses in today’s Gospel is well in order. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” is a phrase that would be very familiar to an ancient agrarian culture as opposed to now. The yoke was a mechanical device made of wood that connected the necks of two oxen side by side. The reason for such a device was intended to help the younger animal to plow the land by being led in tandem by the older trained animal. The experienced animal helped the inexperienced one complete the task of tilling the soil demanded by the farmer.
When Jesus says to his followers take my yoke upon you and learn from me, he insinuates that his experience of being an authentic human being and the Son of God is the only way in which people can find any semblance of peace and rest in a fallen world.
His words should not be misconstrued to conclude that he will take away people’s suffering and trauma, for he refused to do that even for himself, even though he is not subject to punishment for sin. Being sinless, he did not owe, nor was he responsible for the debt of others. Yet he accepted suffering and death for our sakes. Rather, Jesus wants us to think past the present to include the whole breath of life, including the promise of eternal life. If that were not the case, the crucifixion would be the end of the story, and we all know it was not.
For most of our lives, we do not think about the wholeness of life, including eternal life, when we labor or suffer trauma, for the end of our earthly life is too far in the future. For those who do not accept the yoke of Christ throughout their life, there is little perceptible change. Conversely, those who have taken the yoke of Christ throughout their lives have a similar experience, except when the suffering and trauma reach its climax, the time before death.
Many health professionals dealing with the dying are keenly aware that some are anxious before death and others are completely peaceful. The story of Leo, a faithful Catholic, is a prime example of a person who had taken the yoke of Christ willingly. Leo, a young man in today’s terms, was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor in his mid-thirties.
As Leo’s disease progressed, his physical abilities gradually left him, and he continued to hope. As his tumor was growing, he was remembered by his caregivers as saying, “The [his] tumor is a condition, not a hindrance.” How burdened Leo was, yet how much rest and peace he showed through his comment.
During his last six months, the tumor took its toll. Then began the inevitable suffering. He was confined mainly to his bed. His movement was limited. He couldn’t see. He could speak only briefly, in short phrases. And most, his speech was simply in response to another. When speaking to him, the assistance of a microphone was necessary. This microphone was connected to headphones, for his hearing of words was feeble.
Now unconscious and very close to death, his hospice nurse observed something she had seen before. She recalls how peaceful this man was throughout his illness and how it continued until he breathed his last. The same hospice nurse quickly mentioned that not all deaths are the same; some are not observably peaceful but rather very anxious, and the patient is flailing around moments before they leave this world.
Although a cynical mind might think the example is just antidotal, look at the many lives of saints who died peacefully, too, even those who suffered violent deaths like St. Stephen and others. Those men, women, and children took on the yoke of Christ long before they passed from this world. And during their passing, Christ never left their sides. Certainly, Leo’s peaceful death was accompanied by Christ, who never left him.
In the second reading, St. Paul summarizes the lesson well: “Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.”