“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. 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.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Ever since I was a young child, this popular Gospel verse has baffled me. I learned in grade school what a yoke was — that wooden beam that allowed a team of oxen to pull a heavy load on a cart. How was it possible, then, that Jesus, using this same metaphor, could have a light and easy burden?
All of us have gone through periods of our lives when we are heavily laden with burdens and understand that “all you who labor” includes not just our daily work schedule, but the interior labors of hardship and difficulties we also carry. It’s why this verse is so beloved and a comfort to many during their struggles.
As obvious as the meaning behind finding rest in Jesus may be for some, I never got the part about a burden being light or a yoke being easy. Yes, God is God, which means He is all-powerful and can do anything. But why use that image to say a heavy load is not actually heavy at all?
Recently, I’ve gone through another very dark spell that has affected every facet of my life: spiritual, emotional, mental, physical. My burden has been beyond heavy, my onus unbearable and suffocating at times. I have found no rest or solace – not in prayer, not in the desperate lamentations I sigh heavenward, not in Scripture or conversations with friends or hymns or Mass. Nothing.
Then, I went to Confession. It is a constant on our family’s monthly schedule, but I’d gone about six weeks before dragging my weary body to church in the early evening hours. I was more than ready to give Jesus my burdens and lay them down at His feet.
Our Labors and Burdens
What are those labors and burdens referenced in these verses? The footnotes in the New American Bible state that they are about the scribes and Pharisees, who were burdened by the law. Could it be that some of our rigid religiosity actually binds us, rather than frees us to natural conversation and meditation with God?
Sometimes our burdens are self-imposed. Sin does this to a soul, and it afflicts the mind and body, too. Looking at the totality of our lives, when one aspect is out of sync, the rest will suffer alongside it. We can’t escape the truth that living an authentic Christian life means that we will struggle with the burden of our tailor-made crosses. They will be heavy, and at times, we will be crushed under their weight. When it seems that God has, indeed, given us more than we can handle, we beg Him to send us a comrade that will make it more bearable.
Most people I’ve met have shared that they long for more rest in their lives. The word they often choose is peace. I think what modern-day Catholics are desperate for is a pace that is slower, a way to maintain the spiritual serenity gifted by the grace of God. We need to be refreshed. Because of our finite nature, we must take regular periods of restorative sleep to revitalize not only a weary body but a stricken soul, too.
In these verses, Jesus wants us to find rest by acquiescing to His will by way of holy obedience. It is when we are constantly fighting against Him, unrelenting and without any resolution, that we wear ourselves out. While it can be healthy to wrestle with God in times of uncertainty and in the aftermath of loss, we can’t stay in a state of constant resistance to His will. Obedience may just mean surrendering to the mysteries we all face. That is where true rest begins.
Jesus Lightens the Load
I was brutally honest in my most recent Confession. I told the priest I was angry with God, that I felt in some ways I was losing my faith. I had taken a huge risk in this openness, because I have had confessions in which the priest interrupts me or constantly reprimands me. It can be shaming. I knew that was a possibility this time, but my desperation and inner pain were bursting to be acknowledged.
I could not hide from myself, and especially not from God.
Thankfully, the priest was a true reflection of Christ in his gentle demeanor, his nonjudgmental responses, his kind and tender tone of voice. My penance was to pray for strength, which I did immediately. I let the tears cascade down my face as I openly sobbed in front of a handful of strangers.
The sense of finding rest or having my load lighter didn’t happen that day. But when I awoke the next morning and began my daily routine, I noticed my heart did not feel as crushed. I wasn’t constantly sighing. I could see life through the lens of gratitude, and God’s peace was awash in my soul.
As I prayed while the sun peeked through the silver maples in our backyard, I instantly thought of this verse and realized that Confession lightens the load. When we come to Jesus with the humility that honesty demands, He does not hold back from us. He grants us the reprieve we need, even if it is just barely enough to give us strength to carry on for one more day.
Sometimes that is all we need.