If you leave St. Patrick’s Cathedral by the front door, on Fifth Avenue, you can’t help but be jolted by the figure greeting you as you leave.
It’s Atlas: a mammoth, four story high statue of the Greek titan, cast in bronze, his arms spread wide has he carries the universe on his back. He was created by artist Lew Lawrie in 1937. It’s the largest sculpture in Rockefeller Center – bigger, even, than Prometheus, down by the skating rink. The Atlas statue aroused controversy when it was unveiled, with some people complaining that the face of on the statue looked too much like Mussolini. But someone noted, to the contrary: “It looks the way Mussolini thinks he looks.”
Whoever he resembles, the Atlas we meet as we leave the cathedral makes a powerful statement. As we pass through those massive doors, we leave the house of God…and return to the world of gods. The gods of deadlines and headaches in midtown Manhattan. And Atlas welcomes us back.
Welcome back, he says, to everything you’ve been praying about.
Welcome back to the invoices that are overdue and the line to get on the elevator. Welcome back to the boiler that doesn’t work and that unemployment that’s running out and the accident causing problems on the subway that is going to delay getting home.
Welcome back to things you want but can’t afford. Welcome back to Tiffany’s and Saks and Harry Winston and Cartier.
Welcome back to the world – and all the burdens, the weight of the world, that every one carries on their back.
But in today’s gospel, Jesus offers us help.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he says. “For I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
What a relief!
Jesus wasn’t talking, of course, about the misery of midtown Manhattan, or the headaches of modern life. He was talking, specifically, about all the regulations that the Pharisees had laid out for the Jewish people – more than 600 in all — rules that, to a lot of the Jews of the time, must have felt like the weight of the world. But Jesus offered another way. Later in Matthew’s gospel, he would make it clear that you don’t need hundreds of regulations, but only two commandments – love God, love your neighbor.
That sounds so simple, and that does lighten the load. But it doesn’t completely remove the “yoke”. For when you think about what it means to love God and love your neighbor – especially to love your neighbor! – well, you can feel your shoulders start to sag.
Yet, what Jesus offers is not meant as an imposition. Love is never an imposition. It is a choice, and a gift. There, from the depths of our hearts, is where we find the strength to carry that yoke – trusting that the God who makes all things possible will also make it possible to bear any burden, to carry any load. And if we do, Jesus – “meek and humble of heart” Jesus – assures us that he will give us that most blessed of gifts, rest.
As St. Augustine put it so beautifully in his famous prayer: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” In Jesus, our restless hearts find comfort. Reassurance. Peace.
Today’s scripture reminds us that it’s not found by attaching ourselves to this world, with all the things that weigh us down.
As we heard from St. Paul, writing to the people of Rome:
“If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
In other words: don’t fall prey to all the problems that plagued ancient Rome – or modern New York. The kinds of things that the great statue of Atlas sees happening around his feet every day – and that people file in and out of St. Pat’s to pray about, or seek forgiveness for. These are heavy “yokes” of the world that can weigh us down. Instead, take on the yoke of Christ – the bearable burden of love.
He is our rest. And he is our strength. He’s the one who helps us when we feel like we are carrying the weight of the world.
If you look closely at that great statue of Atlas, you’ll see that he has one sphere on his shoulders that represents the north-south axis of the universe. It is marked to point us toward the North Star. For centuries, that is the star that sailors have used to navigate, to determine where they are, and to find their way home. It is the determining point on ever compass.
As Catholic Christians, our North Star is Jesus Christ. He gives us direction, guidance, surety. He leads us home.
Remember that, the next time the worries and weight of the world seem to be too much.
He is ready, meek and humble of heart, to lead us where we belong.
And it won’t be as hard as we may fear.
For his yoke is easy. And his burden is light.
This homily was originally preached on July 3, 2011.