Independence Day! Parades streaming down main street, band concerts of patriotic music, fireworks displays, cookoutsall celebrating the birth of a nation with paeans of praise for freedom, democracy and military might. With the memory of Sept. 11 still fresh, the celebrations will be bittersweet. How out of kilter seem the Sunday readings! Zechariah awaits a meek savior riding on an ass, who will banish the trappings of war, chariot and horse, and proclaim peace to the nations. In the Gospel, Jesus prays in gratitude to the Father for the gift of revelation to the little ones, and then invites those who labor and are burdened to come to him, since he is meek and humble of heart. These hardly seem the attitudes and values so heralded today.
Today’s Gospel is a virtual summary of Matthew’s theology. Jesus is the one who reveals the very nature of God. He summons people to take up his yoke (an allusion to the Jewish expression about taking on the yoke of the Torah), and as embodied wisdom he invites people to come to him (Mt. 11:19; 12:42). His self-revelation is to the little ones, people who are blessed at the beginning of his teaching (Mt. 5:1-12), and who will reveal his hidden presence at the final judgment (Mt. 25:31-46). They are also those who labor and are burdened, a reference most likely to those who suffer under the burdens of religious obligations imposed by those who tie up heavy burdens and lay them upon peoples’ shoulders (Mt. 23:4) while neglecting the weightier things of the law, justice, mercy and faith (Mt. 23:23). Not only do they receive God’s revelation; they embody its deepest meaning for others.
The church in the United States has been tested by unprecedented scandal and leadership failures. Where are there signs of hope? We should look to the little ones who have come to Jesus at times of trial. This past semester I taught 10 African-American students in a class on the Gospels, who throughout their lives had taken on the yoke of Jesus and found rest. Now, when many Catholics lack faith and trust in the institutional church, such people are a beacon. They never lost faith amid the discrimination and racism rampant in the churches, but heard the voice of Jesus summoning them to a deeper wisdom. Generations of religious women now advanced in years taught and communicated the faith to first-generation immigrants, though they themselves were often treated shabbily by the very institution they served. But they were really serving another group, God’s little ones. In this season of purification, when countless meetings and declarations of hierarchs ring hollow, Catholics must learn from the experience not only of Jesus, who was meek and humble of heart, but from those who cast their burdens on him. Our countless civic celebrations are also celebrations of those little ones who came to this land fleeing persecution or seeking a decent life for their loved ones. Gospel and culture are a mandate for us never to forget to listen to the voices of the little ones who carry God’s presence.