My growing up years coincided with the heyday of NASA and the process of living up to John F. Kennedy’s challenge to send a manned mission to the moon and return it safely to Earth by the end of the 1960s. I remember my mother sobbing when three astronauts died in the Apollo 1 fire on a Cape Kennedy launching pad in 1967. I was watching on television at my grandparent’s house on Christmas Eve 1968 when the Apollo 8 astronauts read the opening verses of the first chapter of Genesis facing the lunar earthrise as they orbited the moon. I listened on our car radio returning from summer camp when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in the summer of 1969. And I remember the tension in the air as the damaged Apollo 13 returned from its ill-fated mission in the spring of 1970, as we wondered whether they would be able to reenter their disabled capsule into the Earth’s atmosphere at precisely the right speed and angle. Enter at an angle too shallow, and the capsule would bounce back off into space never to return. Enter at an angle too sharp, and the capsule would burn up. We clapped and cheered as we watched the parachutes safely lower the module into the ocean.
Not long ago, I had an opportunity to think about the dynamics of reentry for the first time in my life. As my sabbatical semester at the Collegeville Institute came inexorably to an end, a semester of spiritual healing and growth as well as of successful writing and regeneration, I wondered and worried more and more about how to take such a positive, transformative experience back into the “real world.” My childhood religious world included annual “revival” weeks, usually during the summer, during which a roving evangelist or furloughing missionaries would come to our church and hold nightly meetings. It was clear to me that the purpose of these events was to recharge the faith of those who had grown stale in their commitments to Christ, to bring those who had wandered back into the fold, and to shame the unrepentant into repentance. I wasn’t so sure at the time why we had them every year. I learned as I got older that such revivals were scheduled on a regular basis because everyone assumed that the shelf life of such revivals is short—such things tend to fade very quickly when carried into the real world.
Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I’ve heard this passage quoted dozens of times over the years, usually as a proposed comfort for those of us who regularly feel that the demands of living a life of attempted dedication to God are just too much, that the world we live in is too complicated and too complex to accommodate a focused and committed life of faith. As if such a life is an “add on” to the life that we all have to live as human beings. Jesus’ words certainly do address these concerns, but recently someone pointed out that, despite the promises in this passage, there still is a yoke and there still is a burden. Sort of like noticing that even though Jesus promises that a lowly sparrow’s fall is noticed by the heavenly Father, the sparrow still falls. There is no promise that the yoke and burden will be removed. The promise, rather, is that the yoke and burden that I take on when I take on Christ is one that should fit, should be useable in a practical sense, and should equip me with what I need to live my days with dignity and purpose. For a yoke is a working tool, not a piece of clothing or a decorative accessory. If commitment to God cannot make me a more effective, centered, and peaceful human being, then it is not a commitment worth making.
Last Sunday, as Jeanne and I approached church, Jeanne noticed that the sign out front said “My burden is light.” As we walked into the service, Jeanne laughed, because her first read of “My burden is light” on the sign was not “My burden doesn’t weigh very much,” but rather “My burden is the natural agent that stimulates sight and makes things visible.” “Light” as a noun instead of an adjective, in other words. I love it when she does that. Jeanne’s out-of-the-box reading of the ordinary frequently gets me to thinking—she continued by noting that her unusual reading of the familiar phrase arose from a scene and a particular line from a favorite movie of ours.
“Freedom Writers” is the story of Erin Gruwell, played in the movie by Hilary Swank, a young, idealistic teacher in south Los Angeles in the 1990s who finds her enthusiasm and creativity stretched to the breaking point by students divided into gangs along racial lines and an administration who refuses to let Gruwell give the students books to read because the books might be stolen or damaged. Her unorthodox teaching methods incrementally have a positive impact on her students, but there is a price to be paid. Toward the end of the movie Erin is having dinner with her father and breaks into tears. Her husband has left her, due to her 24/7 dedication to her job and a lack of time for him and their marriage. She sits, weeping, asking her father “Has any of this been worth it? Does it even matter? Have I made any difference?” Her father, who up to this point has been less than supportive of Erin’s commitment, looks at her and says, “You have been blessed with a burden, my daughter. I envy and admire that.”
In one of his wonderful metaphors, Jesus told his followers that “You are the light of the world.” Persons of faith are also blessed with a burden—a burden of light. This is not a burden of things to do, actions to perform, positions to take, any more than light considers illumination to be its job. Many centuries ago, Aristotle resonated with this insight when he argued that the moral life is far less about what a person does than it is about that person’s character, about who that person is. Just as light changes everything it comes into contact just by being what it is, so the person of character reveals herself and introduces light into the darkness simply by being, by showing up. And this is the call to persons of faith. Be there; show up; remember that we have the divine within us. The light may be dim, flickering, all but invisible, but it is the way in which the divine invades the darkness. Our burden is to be what we have chosen to be—divine light bearers.