Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.
In the name of the Father…
About a month ago I received a video from my sister via my family’s WhatsApp group. It showed my two-year old niece Marlowe at a children’s party being driven about in a remote-controlled car with the words “Emergency Ambulance” written down the side of it. Looking by turns delighted and bemused by the experience, she is driven across a parish hall full of fire engines and helicopters and all kinds of other emergency vehicles all of which have their sirens blaring and small children behind the wheel, amongst whom it turn out is my nephew Parker, who makes his presence known by ploughing into the back of his sister on a police motorcycle.
In some respects, today’s gospel reminds me a little of the parish hall in that video. It’s a gospel that is full of children and at first glance it’s quite difficult to tell exactly what is going on. “To what will I compare this generation?” says the Lord “It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Well, it’s not an analogy that’s going to win any prizes for the brilliance of its clarity, but it seems a fairly safe bet that the Lord did not intend it as a compliment to his generation to be compared to these wailing and flute-playing children. And yet the very next moment we find him thanking his Father for revealing to little children what is hidden from the wise and the intelligent. So what are we to make of all this? Does the gospel encourage us to revere children as possessing some special quality of insight, or does it, on the contrary, offer them to us as representatives of an understanding that is radically limited, underdeveloped, immature?
Well, if the gospels are not exactly crystal clear on this subject then we can hardly blame them for it, since when it comes to children, the evangelists were confronted, as we too are confronted, with a paradox repeatedly set before us by Christ himself: that for a Christian to be a grown-up it is necessary to become like a child.
The obvious question, of course, is to become like a child how? What particular characteristic of children is it that the Lord encourages us to aspire to? Their innocence? Their unselfconsciousness? Their unaffected capacity for joy? The problem with all such answers, is that they inevitably end up relying on a whole host of modern assumptions about children that would have been thoroughly alien both to Jesus and to the evangelists.
Thankfully, today’s gospel offers us an alternative solution in the luminous self-portrait of Christ that comes at its end. “Come to me all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens and I will give you rest” says the Lord “for I am gentle and humble in heart”. I am gentle and humble in heart. Well, there you have it. If we are looking for a definition of the childlikeness that is simultaneously the deepest Christian maturity then we need look no further than this gentleness and humility of Christ. And yet what a scandal it still is. Two thousand years of Christian history have rather tended to obscure the sheer peculiarity of the fact that it is humility that is the benchmark of Christian maturity, that humility is what it means for a Christian to be a grown-up.
And that is what makes today’s readings such a gift to us, because what they offer us is not just a definition of the childlike humility that is synonymous with Christian adulthood, but a string of simple but profound insights into what that humility is actually like, insights which cut through all the sentimentality and distortions we have overlaid it with.
So, what do they tell us? There are, I think, four things we can say.
First of all, the gospel makes very clear that humility is a labour, it is work. Christ in the gospel promises to give rest to those carrying heavy burdens, and yet he promises to do so not by relieving us of all burdens entirely, but by substituting for the heavy burden of our pride the light and easy yoke of humility. In other words, to be humble, to be a grown up in Christ, is to take up a yoke, it is not to float above the ground on a cloud of self-forgetfulness. And yet it is a yoke that the Lord promises we will find easy and light, a yoke we will find infinitely lighter and less exhausting than the heavy burden of our pride.
Second, the humility that is the hallmark of Christian maturity is manifest not so much in the humble person’s attitude toward themselves, in how low an opinion of themselves they have managed to acquire, but in the rest that others find in them. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” says the Lord “and I will give you rest” for “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. The true fruit of humility, in other words, is not to be found in the humble person themselves but in the space, the wideness, the freedom their humility opens up in which others find rest. And that means that all our efforts to try to discover whether we really are humble by an ever more rigorous attention to ourselves, to our own motivations and inclinations, is to be looking for humility where it cannot be found.
Thirdly, if the Lord in the gospel assures us that his yoke will be easy and his burden light, then St Paul in our epistle makes quite clear what is involved in lifting off the heavy burden of pride we are already carrying. “I do not understand my own actions” he says “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate[…]I can will what is right, but I cannot do it[…]Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” These, fairly obviously, are not the words of a man who is finding the path of humility light or easy. They are the words of a soul in anguish and even on the brink of despair. Which is why they are words we cannot afford to ignore if we are serious about walking that path ourselves. The yoke of humility may be light and rest and joy, and yet we need not kid ourselves that it will come any cheaper than at the cost of the most precious possession we have, the one we are more reluctant to relinquish than any other: our faith in ourselves.
Finally, and most fundamentally of all, in commending to us the childlikeness that is synonymous with Christian maturity, today’s gospel points us toward the most fundamental childlikeness of all, one that has nothing to do with youth and everything to do with our relationship to the one who gives us life. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” says the Lord “and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” The childlikeness that Christ commends to us in the gospels is not to be found in some quasi-mystical quality of children, but in the relationship of Jesus Christ to his Father. For a Christian to become like a child is simply to be given the grace to enter into that eternal relationship of love between the Father and the Son and so to recognise that everything we have we have not for ourselves, but for another, we have in order that we may return it to the Father as the joyful offering of his own creation made perfect by his own love and grace.