Red Mass 2019

Published: October 4, 2019

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor preached the following homily at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. It is based on Matthew 11:25-30, the Gospel for the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi, religious.

Bishop Taylor

One of the hardest things I had to learn as a child was to tie my own shoes. My parents got a big wooden shoe for me to practice on, but then I had trouble applying that knowledge to my own foot because everything was backwards. Up to then I had depended on my parents to tie my shoes because it was important that they be bound to my feet.

One of the hardest tasks of early adulthood is to decide what to bind ourselves to in life. Who to bind ourselves to in marriage? What field of study to bind yourself to in college? The word “bind” may give us the impression that these things leave us less free than before. But quite the opposite is true. No one is less free than the person who refuses to be bound to things that give meaning and purpose to life.

And no society is less free than the society not governed by the rule of law. The unemployed and ignorant are not free — true freedom comes with commitment; living for something bigger than oneself. Places where anarchy prevails are not free — they revert to the law of the jungle and the tyranny of the most brutal; for instance areas dominated by the drug cartels.

Religion binds us to God and a system of beliefs about God: No one has fewer resources for life than the person with no religion, whose connection to the source of life has been cut.

The word “religion” comes from a word meaning “to bind.” This is the same root found in our word “ligament.” Ligaments bind bone and muscle, giving us the freedom to walk or run; no one is less mobile than the person whose ligaments have been cut. Religion binds us to God and a system of beliefs about God: No one has fewer resources for life than the person with no religion, whose connection to the source of life has been cut.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us that he is so intimately bound to the Father that to know either is to know both, and he has come to provide us the means whereby we can be united intimately to God as well. Jesus describes this by using the image of a yoke — the same image that the Bible uses when it speaks of the law of Moses.

A yoke is a wooden frame by which two oxen are joined to enable them to work together. And whereas the yoke of the Old Testament law, which bound the people to God, could sometimes be very burdensome, especially for the poor and uneducated, Jesus’ yoke is light because he is there on the other side pulling most of the load.

Today we are gathered for this Red Mass in which we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in everything you do in public service through the legal profession. And we do so on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the great saint who reminds us, among other things, of the human dimension of justice — even when heavy sentences must be handed down — that there is a higher law of mercy — “but for the grace of God, there go I.”

And while it is true that no human law and no human legal system is perfect, we should remember that beyond a certain point, unjust laws lose their binding force. Legislation must be at the service of truth and goodness, such that in extreme cases of injustice we are obligated to disobey such laws or at least find a way around them. We saw that in the civil disobedience that was part of the struggle to shake off the yoke of extremely unjust Jim Crow Laws in the struggle for civil rights.

In the Bible the law was referred to as a yoke. And so today we ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you exercise your vital role of service as persons of faith, yoked above all to the Lord. True to the laws of our land but exercised in a way that is true also to that higher law, never losing sight of the humanity of the person you are dealing with, always remembering that human laws are at the service of truth and goodness and so need to be applied in a human way.

Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”