Today’s gospel contains some of the most comforting words ever uttered: “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.” (Mt 11:28-30) Who, upon hearing such words, wouldn’t rush to join up?
However, we do ourselves and other potential recruits a disservice if we read these words in isolation, for just a chapter earlier, Jesus was promising his apostles that they would be handed over to courts and scourged in synagogues (Mt 10:17), hated by all (Mt 10:22). He proclaimed that he had come to bring not peace, but the sword (Mt 10:34) and those who did not take up their crosses and follow him were unworthy of him (Mt 10:38).
It is as if we are being told that terrible things are going to be done to us, but we’ll learn to like it, in a masochistic kind of way. I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong way to read it.
Yes, we can expect physical persecution (or at least discomfort and inconvenience). The crosses that followers of Jesus bear are not always unto death. But there is a joy to be found in following His will. It helps to remember that a yoke is never placed on a single ox in isolation. A yoke is used to couple oxen so that they work as a team. When we take on the yoke of Christ, we are uniting ourselves to him. All of our sufferings, works, prayers, and joys are joined to those of Christ, who purifies and magnifies them.
Even so, the cross needs to be re-shouldered daily, and while the yoke is easy and the burden light, the daily life of the Christian is not easy, and even a light burden can feel heavy when it has been carried for a long time. One is reminded of the story of St. Teresa who, having been dumped in the river cried out to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few of them.” St. Paul recounted a long list of beatings, shipwrecks, and trials that certainly did not indicate that acceptance of the Lordship of Christ brought with it a life of ease.
We accept that life is hard. We choose the harder life, because that it what Christ calls us to, and there is peace and joy in that.