Jer 23:1-6, Mark 6:30-34
We have a very seasonal Word from our gospel today. The disciples are back after their very first experience of mission. They are exhausted but buzzing, so to speak, on a spiritual high. And Jesus takes them to a lonely place, so they can rest as a group, by themselves. Except, as it turns out, that it is not that lonely, and Jesus has to start ministering again. As the restrictions begin to loosen, some might find the time for some holidays. Most people usually start wearing out as the school year ends. After a year and a half of intermittent lockdowns and the deprivation of our natural modes of recharging, it is even more crucial. In the light of the gospel, it might be worth reflecting on this need for rest and what actually helps us rest.
Everything in creation follows natural rhythms of day and night, waking and sleeping, work and rest. Even more, this theme of rest is an important one in the Scriptures. God creates the world in six days, for the rest of the seventh day. It is not that God got tired that he took a break. It is for this rest with him we were created. The need for rest is woven into our beings. We ignore it at our own peril. Sometime back, I was visiting a family and our conversation drifted to the Myers-Briggs personality types. You might be familiar with the first classification on it, to do with introversion and extroversion. These tend to identify how people naturally recharge. The wife was introverted while her husband was extroverted. She remarked how, when she was tired, she would love to curl up on the couch with a good book. And she was teasing her husband, saying, how, when he was tired, his first thought would be to go and meet some friends, something bewildering to an introvert. The differences in these modes are of course, obvious. But these differences tend to obscure, that they are, in essence, very similar. There is the need for private space in the first way, eked out for oneself. It is space where you feel safe. You cannot rest when you’re unsure of your safety. There is a space, where you can be yourself. You don’t have to worry about others, what they think, attend to someone else’s immediate need. You can relax.
In the last year and a half, part of the reason people have become so stressed, is the loss of this space. Many have had to work from home. There are some advantages to that. But it has also meant that what used to be a different space, at work, has fully invaded the more personal space of home. The boundaries between work and life, both in terms of time and space has eroded. This was already the case, right from the advent of emails, when people started checking emails at home. It accelerated tremendously with social media. When we’re online, be it Facebook or Twitter or anything else, we are on stage. We are performing, however conscious we are of it. We are posting things, keeping this invisible audience in mind; we want to attract some attention, we are afraid of the wrong attention. We are being watched. Then there is Google, noting down your every search request, collecting data from all the websites you visit. All of it is an erosion of private space, but one we have allowed, whether we have thought about it or not. There are our electronic devices, like Siri and Alexa listening to all our conversations. Even mundane things like the ‘smart’ thermostat and Amazon doorbell are information gateways. All of this is a loss of private space. Space where you can be yourself without being judged. There are of course, much darker sides to this, as we might be aware. Children who could be free of bullies at school now find that it follows them home, through social media quite often. They cannot be safe, even at home.
That brings me to the first similarity that resting by oneself has with seeing friends. True friends are safe space. They are those, with whom you can be yourself. You are not performing. They are people who love you, who are not judging you, critically, for everything that you say and do. You find a home, in their love for you and your love for them. It is a private space, in the larger sense of the word. And in that space of friendship, you can receive the truth of who you truly are. Which is part of why it is fulfilling. It is contemplative. And a good book does the same. It allows you to gaze on something important, reveals something about life, about truth. It is much like gazing at a beautiful work of art. It allows your mind to rest on something that is true of the world. It is refreshing.
These are of course, true of human nature. Aristotle elaborated on a lot of these truths, long before Christianity. But as Christians, we can take these further. Augustine opens his masterpiece, the Confessions, speaking of the restless heart. We have a deep restlessness within us, because, finally, we were meant to rest in God, who alone can satisfy our longing. Legitimate avenues of rest, such as sleep, friends, a good book, a holiday are all wonderful and good. Binge watching Netflix, maybe not so much. But these will not be enough to satisfy us. And keeping this in mind, we can look at the readings again.
As the disciples come back exhausted, Jesus doesn’t just send them away on holiday. They go with Christ, to rest in his friendship. And the crowds flock to him, as they instinctively recognise, that he can give them rest. This is the beginning of the rest that the prophets had promised. God would one day himself be their shepherd and keep them safe. He would save them from bad shepherds. None of his sheep will be scattered or terrified. And in Christ, this promise comes true. Of all the friendships we can have, it is only in Christ, that we can fully know ourselves, we can fully become ourselves. We have to find ways of being with Christ. I’m not talking just about prayer. Often, we treat prayer as simply a duty; but this friendship with Christ is something our hearts deeply desire. Because, finally, even when we manage to find a quiet place, a great holiday and what not, if our hearts are anxious, if we are burdened with worries or weighed down by guilt, these can do little to refresh us.
Christ comes as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for us. Sheep will not lie down when they don’t feel safe. When it says in Psalm 23, ‘he makes me lie down’, it is the promise of the safety that the Shepherd’s presence provides. Christ, in his humanity, has gone through the horrors of life, and triumphed over them. He comes to us victorious over death and says, ‘I am here with you and for you’. This is the Shepherd who comes to you and me today in the Eucharist. Lay down your worries and cares at the altar. Receive his love. And be refreshed in his Presence.