Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Advent: Isaiah 40:25-31, Matthew 11:28-30.
Today’s readings strike me as a sort of Catholic Labor Day. Rather than celebrating all those who labor, today (my make-believe Catholic Labor Day) celebrates our being yoked to the Lord in spiritual work — something that eclipses whatever earthly labor we do and lightens our beings. I think it is worthwhile to explore our ideas of labor in light of today’s gospel reading; perhaps we’ll be able to gain insight into how Christ’s teaching resonates through the centuries to today.
A little historical perspective: Labor Day arose in the USA in the late 1800s as a way to recognize the contributions of workers in our newly industrialized nation. Factories in America’s cities fueled incredible growth in jobs, and there was a great exodus from agricultural and rural areas to cities. But the work was often hard, dirty, and exploitative. The American labor movement and trade unions focused on safe working conditions and workers’ rights, and grew in power and popularity. Labor Day arose from this cultural mix: believing in the power of humans to create a better world (the rallying cry of industrialization) and the simultaneous urge to not devalue humanity as “cogs in the machine,” an inherent hazard in the race to produce cheap goods for mass consumption. This is what I want to emphasize because today’s gospel has something different to say about labor. Again: Labor Day came about as a reaction against the dehumanizing effect of industrialization, within a cultural milieu of heightened expectation of the Enlightenment ideals of humanism. While the traditional Age of Enlightenment is dated to end at the Age of Revolutions (French, American, Industrial), we can understand that this revolutionary urge was nothing more than people really taking on the Enlightenment ideals of individualism, human progress, scientism, rationalism, and opposition to religious orthodoxy. Arguably, the Age of Enlightenment continues through to this day — many of our unspoken assumptions about who we are, our place in the world, and the destiny of civilization are nothing but products of Enlightenment thinking.
Many (myself included) would argue that Labor Day celebrates a noble ideal: that the common working person has dignity. But as a Catholic, I have some issues with the cultural environment that produced this holiday. Workers have forever been devalued in human societies. From the slaves who built the pyramids to the slaves who worked on American plantations, humans have long turned a blind eye to the human dignity that workers inherently have. You just have to watch one of any number of PBS Masterpiece shows from historical England to see that even the most civilized English manors had a rigorous upstairs/downstairs caste system where workers were thoroughly “put in their place.” Why, then, did Labor Day only develop in the late 1800s? Not to go on too long about historical movements, but populism, driven by humanist ideals reaching a crescendo in the French and American Revolutions, was the tipping point for the common person’s interests to begin to be heard on a global scale. Add to this the development of mass communication with newspapers, railroads, cable telecommunications and the like, and suddenly people could be “seen and heard.” But as is so often the case, people in the Industrial Revolution didn’t necessarily look to their past to contextualize their struggles, but instead to the immediate future. This is understandable: hungry people need food, poor people need money, people with dangerous work need safer conditions. So the ideal of upholding common human dignity took a back seat to pressing concerns and political goals.
All of this is to say that Labor Day is rooted partly in class struggle, more firmly in the bosom of capitalism, and most unmovably in the assumption that humans alone must watch out for themselves, create their own justice, and progress to a better human future on this earth.
Here we finally get to today’s readings because that last list of assumptions runs contrary to the Word of God. I wonder how construction workers at the turn of the last century would answer Isaiah from today’s reading: “Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these things”? When all we see are skyscrapers and human “progress,” we must conclude that we are the ones who have created these things. Pride and self-centeredness can be social traits as well as personal ones. Thankfully, Isaiah continues in spreading the Word of God: “Why, O Jacob, do you say, and declare, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” These doubts in God’s desire or ability to see and hear us are common throughout history. Isaiah brings them up in order to answer them roundly: “Do you not know or have you not heard? The LORD is the eternal God, creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint nor grow weary, and his knowledge is beyond scrutiny.” This is the first and most essential thing to get straight. We must realize that there is someone so much greater than us. God does not grow weary and He knows everything in the past, present, and future. Without this knowledge (not blind faith without evidence), we are doomed to go about life truly blind, without any of the great attributes we are called to have: wisdom, truthfulness, love.
Isaiah then pivots to share with us the great promise of the Lord for those who suffer on the earth: “He gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound. Though young men faint and grow weary, and youths stagger and fall, They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.” This promise is that God will share some of His great strength and endurance with us. It is promised to “they that hope in the Lord” — that is, those who can look up and see the works of God in creation, not just the works of mankind. This promise carries a specific message to workers, slaves, and the suffering. They are historically demeaned and dehumanized by human societies. God is the one who gives them dignity, especially when humans fail to. Of course, this message carries weight for anyone who grows weary (perhaps just weary of life) or who staggers and falls (perhaps in sin).
Jesus repeats His promise in today’s gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Here we have the original Labor Day ideal, but perfect, without human conditions, caveats, or cultural baggage. Jesus calls “all you who labor and are burdened,” regardless of who they are or the burden they undertake. It is universal. And his promise of rest is absolute, not relegated to one day or an improved number of hours off. This promise is clearly above and beyond what humans can offer to one another. It can only come from God Himself.
The image of the yoke He employs is especially significant. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” He says. First, let us recognize that yokes were traditionally used to join two animals in labor together. What’s more, young and inexperienced animals were (and still are) often joined with a more experienced animal to help them learn more quickly how to behave when working. Jesus’s metaphor here is deliberate: He is asking us to become yoked to Him! He will carry the burden alongside us; He will, in fact, help us to learn how to work. This is the action of God’s love come down to earth. Consider that God has already “yoked” Himself to humanity by taking on our human form, and Christ’s invitation to us has implications beyond our individual endeavors in the world. Fr. Simeon Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes, “He who was divine yoked himself to us through his humanity, and now he is inviting us to yoke ourselves to him and his divinity. When the Son’s yoke becomes ours as well, his Incarnation becomes our divinization. To become yoked to the divinity and glory of the Son!” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, 722-723).
In the second part of his statement, “and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” provides us with an understanding of what He will teach us. He points out His own meekness and humbleness of heart because this is what He wants to teach us as we go about our work in the world. Jesus’s humbleness is evident in many ways, but especially through His relationship to the Father. He is the perfection of the law, and obedience is the trait that reveals how he is humble of heart. He wants to yoke us to Him, to train us in how to be obedient to the Father alongside Him. What a revelation of what is in the core of the Divine Being: a gentleness and obedience that we are invited to share.
Finally, we receive the same promise that the Word of God spoke to Isaiah: Jesus says, “and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” The great lesson is that submissiveness of heart to God in fact frees us, allows us to feel rested, rejuvenates us. What a revelation for those who labor! By nature, work means that we exert ourselves, we strain; and it is anti-strain, anti-exertion, that we should do instead. This lifting of burdens is one in the heart, and it immediately impacts us psychologically and physically. We have many folk sayings about how a light heart makes for easy work, and these emanate from this same truth revealed through Christ. This is not mere mind over matter, however, let’s be clear. This is the grace of God that is promised to us as we “hope in the Lord” and show our obedience to Him.
The last question I ask myself is “why does the Lectionary present these readings now, during Advent?” For me, there is a clear relationship to the question with which I opened these Advent reflections: For What are we Waiting? Likewise, for whom are we preparing the way? The answer to both is, of course, Christ, but we must not fall back on vagueness and trite remembrances of who Christ is and what He means for humanity’s salvation. This reading reminds us that we are marking the time of humanity’s waiting for this great yoke-mate, this selfless, humble-of-heart teacher who brings with Him the promise of lightening our loads.
This reading, in the light of the opening thoughts regarding Labor Day, also points to the fact that we must expand our ideas about laboring and who is a worker beyond those tied to our cultural memory. Do we not all labor with the burden of something in this life? If not physical labor, there is the mental labor of meeting expectations, of righting wrongs we’ve done, of laboring to be more loving. The universality of Christ’s message regarding labor is important.
Everyone, at all times, is invited by Christ to take up His yoke of obedience to the Father and learn that humbleness of heart like His will give us the rest and rejuvenation we crave.