I love to read and I love to buy books. Sadly, I am lacking considerably in the virtue of persistence so I have more than a few books that I have bought, started and never finished even though they are good books not to mention the books that I have bought and not started even though they look like good books!
Quite some time ago, I purchased a hard-copy soft-cover edition of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on The Joy of the Gospel. I started reading it and I was highlighting and underlining and loving what it said. I never even finished Chapter One.
Recently, I joined a reading group with Fr Jordan SJ since they were tackling Evangelii Gaudium, it was a night that I was free, and since Fr Jordan is the bee’s knees.
One sentence particularly struck me: “Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders.” This sentence is found in the context of a reminder of God’s tirelessness in forgiving us and it brings to my mind two key images.
First, Jesus bears the cross on His shoulders.
“Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol’gotha.”
(John 19: 14 – 17 RSV)
We are the ones who send him off to be crucified. Every time we choose the prince of this world over the prince of peace, every time we choose an opportunity to develop in vice instead of virtue, every time we try to justify ourselves rather than allow ourselves to be justified by him, we join those who say, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”
The idea comes to mind that we are Christ’s cross itself. But instead of spurning us and turning away from the cross, He picks us up, embraces us, and bears us, in order that we might, through the mercy and saving action of God, share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.
In private revelation, St Bernard of Clairvaux learnt from Our Lord that His most painful wound was the wound He received carrying the cross on His shoulder. “I had on My Shoulder while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound which was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men.” Startlingly, Padre Pio also had a shoulder wound, in addition to the stigmata, and he stated that this was his most painful wound.
St Augustine talks about how, to the profane world, the cross is a laughing stock. And without the eyes of faith, surely it stretches incredulity. A king – one who the faithful claim is God Himself – carries his people on his shoulder, carrying them unto his own death that they may live? But out of Jesus’ great love for us and out of Jesus’ desire that we would be reconciled to the Father, it is precisely this which he does. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders.
The other main image that comes to mind is, of course, the Good Shepherd who carries us on his shoulder.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
(Luke 15: 4 – 5 RSV)
This is a beautiful image for the sacrament of confession, where Jesus absolves us of our sin and reconciles us to the Father. It is an image of the whole Christian life where we wander off, searching for “something other than God” until we are lost, seemingly without hope, but with infinite patience Jesus goes out and searches for us until He finds us, a reminder that it is always, always, God who initiates. Having found us, if we let Him, He bears us upon His shoulders and carries us home.
And of course, “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:7) which brings us back to the cross. Having laid down His life, the Good Shepherd has the power to take up this same life again which He does, carrying us on His shoulders as He does so that we have share in his divinity.
“The first symbol is the Pallium, woven in pure wool, which will be placed on my shoulders. This ancient sign, which the Bishops of Rome have worn since the fourth century, may be considered an image of the yoke of Christ, which the Bishop of this City, the Servant of the Servants of God, takes upon his shoulders. God’s yoke is God’s will, which we accept. And this will does not weigh down on us, oppressing us and taking away our freedom. To know what God wants, to know where the path of life is found – this was Israel’s joy, this was her great privilege. It is also our joy: God’s will does not alienate us, it purifies us – even if this can be painful – and so it leads us to ourselves. In this way, we serve not only him, but the salvation of the whole world, of all history. The symbolism of the Pallium is even more concrete: the lamb’s wool is meant to represent the lost, sick or weak sheep which the shepherd places on his shoulders and carries to the waters of life. For the Fathers of the Church, the parable of the lost sheep, which the shepherd seeks in the desert, was an image of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The human race – every one of us – is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all – he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”