As you may know, the word “gospel” means “good news.” And today the gospel truly is good news. Because today, Jesus tells his disciples to take a day off!
We all need to go on retreat from time to time in order to rest from work and spend time with Jesus. Yet, while some of us go on ACTS retreats or youth retreats from time to time, we have to admit that it’s difficult to break away from the daily grind and find time to rest.
I think it is so difficult to schedule a retreat or a vacation because of the way we look at life. We are hard-working Americans, and we take pride in that. We have heard the studies and statistics about how many weeks per year the average American citizen works versus the citizens of other countries. We Americans always rank among the hardest working people in the world, and that’s not a bad thing. There is great dignity in our work. But the studies go on to say how often we forfeit our paid vacation time, preferring to take a vacation payout rather than actually take time off from work.
Our tendency to stay busy, to work, work, work, is a reflection of the way we see ourselves. We tend to define ourselves by our work, and that is especially true of men. I’m a farmer, I’m a salesman, I’m a mechanic. There is almost a feeling of guilt when we take a vacation, because the whole time we are thinking about all that work that is not getting done. We come back from vacation, and it is a shock to the system when we realize the amount of work that has piled up while we were gone.
If all of this sounds familiar, then you’re in good company—Jesus and his Apostles know exactly what it feels like to be swamped with work. In the gospel today, the work of ministry seems to be overwhelming. The Apostles have been curing the sick, casting out demons, teaching many things, and even skipping meals in order to handle the workload. They are doing good work, meaningful work.
Then Jesus says to come away for a while to a deserted place and rest a while. He knows the limits of human flesh, and the reality of what we call “burnout.” He knows that the Apostles cannot go full throttle from sun-up to sundown. They need time to recreate, that is, to be re-created. While the life of ministry is greatly rewarding in one sense, it can be physically and emotionally draining in another sense. Jesus teaches them to take time away, and to receive, so that they can be more effective at giving. After all, we cannot give what we do not have.
The Apostles go away for a while in order to rekindle their relationship with the Father. Even Jesus himself went away from time to time to spend time with his Heavenly Father, and he did this in order to be an example to his disciples. In those intimate moments of rest and prayer, the Apostles were able to recall who they truly are—not just healers, teachers, and preachers, but sons of the Most High God. They paused to recollect themselves—to remember who they are at the core of their being. It is from this self-knowledge and awareness of their sonship that they were able to recharge their batteries for ministry.
Our psalm today also recalls this restful disposition that our Lord offers to his disciples. It’s Psalm 23, one that most of us know by heart. In fact, in my short two years as a priest, I’ve noticed that this psalm is the most frequent one chosen for funerals. That’s probably because it is so familiar to us, but it also speaks of rest. It is comforting to us to think of our deceased loved ones as finally resting from their labors and from the spiritual battles of this life.
There is another dimension to this psalm that highlights God’s plan for rest and restoration. It is actually very sacramental in its language, even though the psalms were written hundreds of years before Christ instituted the sacraments.
“Beside restful waters he leads me.”
- The water is not driving down from the sky like a thunderstorm, nor is it gushing over the rocks like a mountain stream. It is more like a stock tank that refreshes our livestock, or a swimming pool that gives respite from the summer heat. This verse is an allusion to baptism. The restful waters of the psalm call to mind the still and restful waters of the baptismal font. It is thru baptism that we are restored, re-created into a new type of person—a son of God, a daughter of God. It refreshes the soul by washing away sin and making our relationship with God whole again.
“You have spread a table before me… my cup overflows”
- This verse calls to mind a banquet, where our host is constantly and even prodigiously overfilling our glasses. It alludes to the heavenly wedding banquet of the Lamb—the endless feast and celebration that will take place in Heaven. The altar before us calls to mind that banquet table, and the chalice is that overflowing cup.
- The overflowing cup also calls to mind the story of the prodigal son, who, after wasting away his father’s inheritance, returns home to his father, who spares no expense as he throws a lavish party in celebration. It is a good sort of wastefulness that erases the bad sort of wastefulness.
- This verse uses the image of food and drink, obviously referring to the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist. Our Lord gives us not just a symbol of his sacrifice, but he offers us his very body as food, and his very blood as drink. He does not hold himself back from us. He generously and faithfully comes to remain with us, to enter under our roof. Filled with the supper of the Lamb, our hearts overflow with love for God and for our neighbor.
“In the sight of my foes, you anoint my head with oil”
- This verse calls to mind the anointing we receive on our heads at Confirmation. It is a sacrament of strengthening, even as we rest from battle. We need the strength of Confirmation in order to wage spiritual battle in this life. We need to draw on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the grace of our Christian initiation in order to be Children of Light in a world of darkness. In the sight of our foes, we stand apart from the world. We have been anointed and given a mission to bring Christ to our community.
It is evident, then, that the sacraments are a key component of rest. They sanctify us and prepare us for the work to which we will return. Without periodic rest in our lives, we all risk burnout and personal disintegration.
And yet, there are good ways to rest and bad ways to rest. How many of us return from vacation just to say, “Now I need a day off just to rest from my vacation!” If you’ve ever said that (and I know I have), perhaps we should re-evaluate the way we rest. Is it restorative? Is there space in the vacation to sleep? To pray? To sit around and just be in the company of others? Or is our vacation packed to the gills with places to see and things to do? A vacation like that feels a lot like work, and not much like rest.
We need rest. We need time for leisure and recreation. And we need it more often than two weeks in the summertime. In fact, we need it each and every week of our lives. And God knows that. In fact, he knows it so well that, while he was creating the world, he even created a day off. For us Christians, that day is Sunday. And just like our vacations, there is a good way to spend a Sunday and a bad way to spend a Sunday. So, allow me to give some suggestions on how to spend a Sunday well.
Sunday should be different that the other days of the week.
- Wear different clothes. There was a time when we used to say, “put on your Sunday best” and everyone knew what that meant. It means that we have special, nicer clothes that we only wear on Sundays and special occasions. We even used to say, “Wear ‘church clothes’ to the graduation.” Now I hear folks say to wear “school clothes” to church. That’s backwards. Let’s change that.
Follow the third commandment, and keep Sunday holy.
- Attend Mass
- Pray in the car on the way to church
- Form an intention for the Mass—
- What will you offer?
- What will you pray for?
- Ask your kids what they are going to pray for
- Discuss the homily or the readings in the car on the way home
- Talk about your vocation in life. What is God calling us to do? Did we receive any inspiration during our prayers this morning?
Just as God rested on the seventh day, keep Sunday a day of rest.
- Save homework, housework and home maintenance for Saturdays
- Don’t watch/read the news. The world will keep turning.
- Take a nap!
- Spend time with each other
- Play team sports and games
- Watch a movie together and discuss it
- Do an act of service together for a neighbor
- Cook together, eat together with the TV off, phones put away
Refocus on what’s most important.
- Fathers, come up with a mission for your family. Come up with a motto for your family. Give purpose and direction to your family.
- Discuss the deeper questions in life, and seek out the answers. Don’t be afraid—whatever the question is, someone has already asked and answered it.
As theologian Josef Pieper said, “leisure is the basis of culture,” so cultivate some culture!
- Practice an art or skill. Might I suggest music? Even Willie had to practice the guitar before he was good enough to perform.
- Read a good book. One that you want to read.
- Make up a game, even if the rules change every five minutes.
- Turn on the stereo, move the couch and dance in the living room.
- Learn to brew your own beer. That will make the rest of your Sundays much more enjoyable.
If we approach Sunday intentionally, we will begin to change the way we see ourselves, not defined by the work we do, but defined by our relationships with God and our neighbor. After all, we are human beings, not human doings. It’s Sunday, so be human today. Come away and rest for a while.