Thursday of the Fourth Week of Matthew
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In today’s Gospel, the Lord invites us to cast off the heavy burden of sin and take up the light yoke of His commandments:
The Lord said, All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:27-30
St. Theophan the Recluse describes how this change comes about in the heart of a repentant sinner:
The Lord said, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” O divine, O dear, O sweetest voice of Thine! Let us all follow the Lord Who calls us! But first we must feel something difficult and burdensome for us. We must feel that we have many sins, and that these sins are grave. From this feeling is born the need to seek relief. Faith will then show us that our only refuge is in the Lord and Saviour, and our steps will direct themselves toward Him. A soul desiring to be saved from sins knows what to say to the Lord: “Take my heavy, sinful burden from me; and I will take on Thy easy yoke.” And it happens like this: the Lord forgives the sins, and the soul begins to walk in His commandments. The commandments are the yoke, and sins are the burden. But comparing the two, the soul finds that the yoke of the commandments is light as a feather, while the burden of sins is heavy as a mountain. Let us not fear readily accepting the Lord’s easy yoke and His light burden. In no other way can we find rest unto our souls. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 135
Here the saint has given us a step by step explanation of how the good change from walking on the path of perdition to walking on the path of salvation takes place in the soul:
1. We must feel the burden of our sins, that they are many and are grave.
2. From this feeling is born the need to seek relief.
3. Faith shows us that our only refuge is in the Lord and Savior.
4. Our steps will direct themselves toward Him, and the soul knows what to say: Take my sins from me, and I will take on the yoke of Thy commandments!
5. The Lord forgives the sins, and the soul begins to walk in His commandments.
St. Theophan, of course, was writing for a readership of Orthodox Christians baptized in infancy, who were struggling with the sins that they committed after Baptism. But the process of repentance is the same, whether one is still in need of the Mystery of Holy Baptism or one is a baptized Christian who needs the second Baptism of the tears of repentance. And the process is the same for every human soul, for every soul needs Christ for relief from the burden of sin; every soul needs to take upon itself the light yoke of God’s commandments and to find salvation through Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the only refuge of salvation.
Not every human soul, however, responds to God’s call to Faith in the same way. There is the worldly mind, the mind of unbelief, and there is the otherworldly mind, the mind of Faith. Let us see how these two different minds work at each step of this five step process that St. Theophan has described:
1. Every human being feels the pain of bearing the burden of sin, but the worldly mind feels it only unconsciously or, when aware of it, ascribes it to something other than sin; it does not want to talk about sin. The mind of Faith, on the other hand, says, “Yes, I have sinned; I see that my pain comes from my own choice, and that the only real evil for me is my own sin. Nothing need separate me from God, if only I can repent!”
2. Every human being seeks relief from this pain of sin. But how the worldly mind seeks relief and how the mind of Faith seeks relief are two different things, and between them is a great chasm. One can only go one way or the other.
3. The worldly mind seeks relief in worldly remedies, some that are noble or, for most people, some relief that is ignoble: Being a do-gooder or being an evildoer; being a good citizen or being a criminal; taking up some non-Christian ascetic practice like vegetarianism or being a glutton and a drunkard; being a philanthropist or being a miser – either way the result is the same, which is that the worldly relief does not heal the soul but rather only anesthetizes the soul from the pain of the consciousness of sin and the need for humility and repentance. The mind of Faith, on the other hand, understands that all of these remedies are useless; the soul understands that it can find relief only in Christ, for all human efforts are worthless apart from faith in Christ. So the mind and the will say, “Yes, I assent to the truths of the Faith,” and God gives the grace of Faith.
4. The worldly soul directs its steps on the path of pride, whether according to the higher or lower passions – the result is the same. If the worldly person delights in the acts of goodness, he says, “I will follow the moral law my own way; one need not believe in this or that religion, but only be a good person.” If the worldly person delights in the acts of evil, he simply indulges his passions. But both are following the demonic mind, the mind of pride and self-chosen damnation, and the result is the same. The former person may find an even greater punishment than the latter, for his pride may have been increased more by his good behavior than the other’s by his bad behavior. The soul that lives according to Faith in Christ, on the other hand, directs its steps on the path of humility. He knows that only the Lord Jesus Christ can take away his sins; his own behavior, unaided by Faith and Grace, cannot do this, no matter how hard he tries. He takes up the yoke not of any commandments, not of some universal moral law or humanistic false virtue, but rather he takes up consciously, specifically, and explicitly the yoke of Christ’s commandments in the Gospel, and the experience of his constant inability to rise to the perfection of the Gospel inspires in him humility and complete dependence on grace. This is why the yoke is light: because at some point we realize we cannot carry it, and the Lord Who laid this yoke on us also carries it for us!
5. The person who has the mind of the world finds a pseudo-salvation through temporary worldly happiness, whether of the higher or lower kind. But his sins are not forgiven, because he has not come to Faith and repentance; he still carries the burden of his sins, because he has not given it to Christ in return for the light yoke of repentance. The person with the mind of Faith finds forgiveness and salvation. His soul is as light as a feather, for its burden – the burden of sin, the devil, death, and hell – has been taken away and replaced by the light yoke of Christ, Who has already carried for us His Cross, which takes away all our sins.
Dear Orthodox Christians, may we, every day, cast aside our passions and sins, and the dark thoughts that torment us, seeking not to numb our souls with the distractions and false promises of this world but rather to face the pain of our sins consciously and seek the remedy where it is to be found, in the tears of repentance to the Lord, Who takes from us the heavy yoke of sin and grants our souls feeling and light, as we rest in the unassailable refuge, in the shadow of His wings.