From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
May the yoke of the Law of God be upon this shoulder. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
Somewhere deep in the heart of every person is the longing for a sense of purpose. It is something primordial to our human nature to thirst for some feeling of greater significance. To be born and then die without leaving any mark somehow seems to fall short of what we were made for.
“The Lord God placed Adam in the garden for him to work it,” says the book of Genesis.
The special word for work that the writer employs in that ancient Hebrew sentence conveys “something to accomplish or pursue.” The Lord God knew that to be happy the man needed something to achieve or to reach for. Every person since Adam has felt the same need.
The Messiah himself once told his disciples: “It is my food and drink to do the will of my father and to do it until I have completed it.”
It was his “food and drink” he said: this was the source of his sense of godly purpose and fulfillment. Seen from this angle, Fursa’s image of the yoke is a very relevant one. A yoke turns a mere animal into a man’s worker and partner. Thus harnessed, the beast, whether it knows it or not, has gained a purpose in life above and beyond the natural cycle of eating, sleeping, and reproducing. When an animal has been yoked and put to work, the field will eat because of it. They may survive another year and even grow in number because of it. The beast has left a mark on history. In this way the creature’s life has been lifted from the mere animal cycle of birth, life, and death. The animal will have made a difference: to its environment, to its master, to his family and community.
Our Celtic ancestors were rural people. Profoundly connected with their physical world, they fully appreciated that humans, too, participate in the natural cycles of birth and death: eating, sleeping, and reproducing. However, like the ox that has been harnessed by a master, so the woman or man yoked with the law of God can now offer their shoulder to a higher purpose and make a difference to their environment, and to the family and community of our Heavenly Master. That is the significance God’s yoke offers to anyone who will take it onto their shoulder.
We have already seen that the Celtic peoples understood well that different outcomes are possible in this life. As we now look back through centuries of lives and deaths, history offers us momentary glimpses of the one who penned this prayer and offered his shoulder daily to the Divine Yoke. The outcome of his life stands well out of the ordinary. As we recall Fursa’s life in the chapters ahead, we will see just what kind of fruit and fulfillment can flow from a faith that says, ‘May the yoke of the Law of God be upon this shoulder.”