Today’s Sunday gospel from Matthew chapter 11 contains the powerful words of the Lord: ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light’. They are illustrated here in a powerful painting by the contemporary artist Maria Lang (www.marialang.net). The ways in which gospel readings set in the lectionary fit in with what is happening are often uncanny: Jesus’ words of comfort and welcome are just right for the resumption of public Masses in our churches for the first time since the end of March; I imagine this is the longest break in public worship in this country since the occasions in the Middle Ages when the country was placed under an ‘interdict’ by the pope (e.g. in the reign of King John).
The gospel is personally important for me too and my family. The last time it occurred in our three-year cycle was, of course, in early July 2017. The day after I had read and preached on this gospel two or three times I read the gospel again in Farnborough hospital – as some of you know, it’s often the gospel read during the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. I administered it on that Monday to my younger daughter just after she was diagnosed with leukaemia, as she began her treatment. The gospel has never been the same.
As has been reflected in other material you have seen, we can’t all come back to Mass this weekend. Some of you reading this online are advised to stay at home as far as possible; also, as our numbers are restricted to keep you safe, some of you may choose not to try and get in to the church. The Sunday obligation remains suspended and we are encouraging people to consider coming to a weekday Mass instead. If you’re reading this online and watching our Mass live-streamed, this gospel message is, we hope, still as real for you as for those hearing it ‘live’ in church this weekend. Some of you may know Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel of Matthew. For the Sermon on the Mount, from chapter 5 of the gospel, we see close up the face of Jesus speaking very loudly at us in Italian: it would be easy to experience him as a rather harsh figure. Some of the teaching of these chapters is demanding – it is meant to set the disciples of Jesus apart from others; the moral life is what partly defines them. He’s also commissioned his disciples (in chapter 10) and lamented over towns that did not repent: and then we get this passage, words of comfort and reassurance. The Lord’s yoke is easy, his burden light: it’s not as hard as it might seem to be a Christian.
For many of you, and many people in this country and the rest of the world, the months of this terrible pandemic have been very demanding and costly. It’s vitally important this weekend to be aware that it isn’t over – there may well be further waves, either locally or nationally. Even those of us who’ve been very privileged and fortunate have faced new challenges. Many people have felt and are still feeling a very heavy yoke at the moment and will do so for some time. The worst possible message is a bland and cheery optimism. Christian hope, at the heart of Jesus’ words, is very different. It is the fruit of faith in Jesus and in his love for us, love which we find in the family of the Church on earth, with all our imperfections and sins. We experience this love in the sacraments, acts at points of need in our lives – such as when we are anointed as sick men and women – and that is why being deprived of most physical sacraments for such a sustained period of time has been (and remains) so painful. We need the grace of the sacraments to live fully as the people God wants us to be: for Catholics sacraments are not simply convenient or moving acts of worship: they’re willed by God, part of his plan for us. It is this belief-system which underpins the great joy in our churches this weekend, even if we have to show that joy in a rather restrained way.
When Jesus invites us to come to him, telling us that his yoke is easy, he’s not being sentimental. This call comes in the gospel which is more packed with moral teaching than any other gospel: Jesus in Matthew is giving his people a renewed moral law, a new way of living. Part of what that means is that, although we haven’t been able to go to Confession we should this weekend look at how we have lived during this pandemic. It also means that, as Pope Francis has constantly done, the Church needs to challenge our society about the way we live and call people to repentance – this has to relate to every single aspect of the last few months. In the intensity of a pandemic or a plague we have the chance to reflect about our lives and the life of the world, and to seek forgiveness.
This forgiveness we seek from God is part of how the Lord welcomes as back to him. Welcome back, whether you’re physically in church this weekend or still at home!