Yokes, Oxen, and the Peace of Christ

Take my yoke upon you. My yoke is easy, and my burden light.

Every now and then a familiar line from Scripture will suddenly lose resonance for me.  It’s not a good feeling. Right away I find myself batting at it like a radio gone dead, as though batting at it will make it work for me again.  It doesn’t help that I have to wrestle first with the truth: there’s really no way to be sure what Jesus actually said. I’m no Bible scholar, and so there’s nothing to do but trust that, after two millennia of translations, these words are at least true to what a disciple (whom Tradition has named Matthew) wrote down.

Because I am a poet, I listen to the music: Take my yoke up-on you. It  falls into a naturally trochaic meter. Strong beat, weak beat—emphatic, perfect for an imperative. Then I consider speech stress, as though Jesus were speaking to me directly (in English, of course): “Take my yoke upon you (as opposed to some other yoke) because my yoke is easy.” Now it sounds more persuasive than imperative.

YokeSmall
(Enlarged illustration below)

But here’s the problem: I see myself as already under the yoke of Jesus—that call to love God, and my neighbor as myself.  And to be honest, I don’t always find the loving-my-neighbor part so easy. The problem isn’t so much in loving neighbors who are poor and oppressed (it’s easy to love them, easy to feel good about loving them), but rather in unconditionally loving certain people—some of them in my family and my church—who don’t seem to be following the teachings of Jesus as I think they should. It’s not easy to hear these people claim confidently that they’ve taken on the yoke of Jesus—the same yoke I claim to have taken on!

Meanwhile there is sorrow, pain, and injustice in this broken world—a lot of work to be done. I chafe under this yoke. I get damned tired.

Take my yoke.

The word yoke can be traced through many languages to one root word meaning “to join.” As a noun, yoke is defined as “a wooden frame or bar with loops or bows at either end, fitted around the necks of a pair of animals—such as oxen—for harnessing them together.”  In other words, the yoke joins the animals.

My old Webster’s Collegiate includes a nice little drawing: the white heads of two big oxen side by side. They don’t look beaten.  They look strong and healthy and ready for good work.

The other day, while meditating upon that illustration in the dictionary, I had an epiphany. I saw myself under a broad and beautiful yoke of peace, but at the same time I was standing beside the Christ who labored up the hill carrying the heavy wood of his execution across his shoulders and neck. And yet the Christ beside me under the yoke didn’t appear as a bloody sacrifice atoning for sin. Instead that Christ was the Beloved, humbled and yet gloriously confident.

Amazingly, also beside me under the broad and beautiful yoke was the entire Communion—the entire joining (or yoking)—of the Saints, those who have gone before, those who are laboring on now, and those to be born after I am gone, every one of us beloved, though we may not always look like “saints.”

I suspect it’s going to be hard to hold onto this epiphany. I suspect I’ll be angry all over again the next time it appears that some of us Christians are working very hard—for an end to war and oppression, for social and economic justice, for inclusion of all God’s children equally in the Kingdom—while (in my opinion) other Christians are actually working against us. It won’t be easy, but I’ll try to get out from under my anger and bitterness, because that’s the only way I can get under the other yoke, the broad and beautiful Peace of Christ.

Oxen

For my yoke is easy, and my burden light

Side by side beneath the wood,
in the illustration for yoke in the dictionary,
their two large heads—horns curling up,
soft ears drooping down, eyes nearly closed.
Dumb as an ox, they say.

You can’t harness and rein an ox,
can’t ride him over the hill into town,
can’t race him around the track at the fair.
You can only yoke an ox, and goad him—
for the grunt work, the menial work.

Still, side by side beneath the wood
in the illustration, so gentle
the oxen seem, so humble of heart.
Not stupid, merely resigned.
Certainly strong, composed.

The morning is dark. I’m weary,
heavy-laden, my head bowed beneath
the lamp, over these books, over the news.
I feel you breathing beside me,
Brother Ox, Brother Christ.

Yoke

Madeleine Mysko serves on the MLP Editorial Board. She is an elder at Towson Presbyterian Church (Towson, MD), is a published writer of poetry, fiction, personal essays, and opinion pieces. She is the author of Bringing Vincent Home, a novel based on her experience as an Army nurse during the Vietnam War. A graduate of the Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University, she has taught creative writing for decades. She is also a registered nurse, and presently serves at American Journal of Nursing as coordinator of the “Reflections” column, a platform for personal stories. Her service on the editorial board of More Light Presbyterians stems from a desire to use her gifts in calling the church to be an openly welcoming community, and in demonstrating to others beyond the church what “welcoming” really means.

All her posts can be found here.

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