Sunday, July 9, 2017

At Rest

 Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

I recently paid a visit to a dying man—something we priests do more often than most.  As I sat by his bedside, he told me a few things about his family.  In particular, I remember what he told me about his grandmother.  His grandmother, as he recalled, had lived to the ripe old age of 105.  And do you know to what she attributed her impressive longevity?  Every night, while her supper was cooking, she’d pour herself a small glass of wine, sit down in her easy chair in the living room, reading the paper and watching the news. 

He told me she gave all the credit for her more than a century of life to that daily glass of wine.  I told him that I think she was onto something…but it didn’t come out of the bottle.  She had found a healthy, regular way to rest.  The man lying before was evidence of what happens when you don’t.  He shared how he’d continued to work fulltime for three years after being diagnosed with the disease that’s now taking his life, at an age almost 50 years younger than this grandmother.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

We don’t rest very well, do we?  It’s oftentimes exhausting just to hear what people are doing with their weekend, their vacation, or their retirement.  As a matter of fact, it seems like people are busier these days when they’re off the job than when they’re on it.

We’ve forgotten how to rest.  And I think, in large part, that’s because we’ve forgotten the right relationship between work and rest.  Actually, more often than not, we’ve got it precisely backwards.

Why should we rest?  Even if we’d never say it, most of us act as if we rest in order to be able to work.  If Sunday is a day of rest, that’s because we need to recharge our batteries: to recuperate from the last week of work, and to store up some energy to start the next one fresh.

But that way of thinking makes rest the servant of work—puts the sabbath at the service of the weekdays—right?  And yet, for us Christians, our sabbath—Sunday—is the first day of the week, not the last.  It's supposed to hold pride of place.  We’re not meant to rest in order to get right back to work; we’re meant to work in order that we might be able to really and truly rest.

In the end, we were made for rest, weren’t we?  When a loved one dies, we don’t pray that they might now enjoy eternal work.  The earth is a field in which we must labor; heaven is a playground.  As St. Paul reminds us, instead of the needs and desires of our human flesh, it’s the life of the Spirit that ought to hold sway; if we get those in reverse, we’re headed toward death, not life.

When God commands us to keep the Lord’s Day holy as a day of rest, it’s not intended to be a burdensome obligation.  God made the sabbath for the sake of life: not as some sort of break in our living, but as its high point.  Sabbath rest doesn’t mean doing absolutely nothing; it means reserving the day to do the most important things: not as a day to earn a living, but as a day that gives meaning to the rest of life.  The beauty of art and music, stirring conversation and authentic worship—these are not born out of heavy labor, but find their inspiration in moments of rest and ease, of leisure and contemplation.  Work is indeed a great good, but our toil is in vain if it leaves us no time to play and no time to pray (two things that are more closely related that you thought).

Notice the context of Jesus’ words on rest this Sunday.  They’re found in the second half of our gospel reading.  In the first half, we’re privileged to catch Jesus in prayer—praying out loud to his Father so that we might hear.  Jesus calls us to himself, to enter into his rest, as a way of inviting us into his relationship with God the Father.  Of course, our weekly sabbath is to be a time of physical refreshment. But it’s also meant to be a day of spiritual renewal, giving us time to work on relationships: to deepen our intimacy with God and with one another—most especially, with family.

What are some practical ways you can do this?  Go to Mass, of course…but also discuss what you took away from it.  Visit a sick relative or neighbor.  Do a favorite hobby, and share it with somebody else.  Go outside and play with the kids (and I don’t mean watching or coaching them in one those overblown organized sports that’s more work than it is play; those are killing families…and they’re killing childhood).  Cook and eat a nice meal together.  Read a good book—or even the Good Book.  Take a nap.  Unplug from email and social media; instead, be social with the people right there in front of you.  But if you at all can, do avoid going shopping: you might find it relaxing, yet it probably doesn’t feel that way to those who have to wait on you.

What are the consequences of our forgetfulness concerning holy rest?  The eighteenth-century French philosopher, Voltaire—certainly no friend of the Catholic Church—once astutely noted, “If you want to kill Christianity, you must abolish Sunday.”  It should be no surprise, then, that as our Sundays have been increasingly filled with other pursuits, looking more and more like any other day, our churches have been getting emptier and emptier.  When we grow forgetful of how to rest and how to rest in God, soon enough we become forgetful of God, too.

One last story.  When I was in the seminary in Rome, most of us seminarians went to the same barber, whose shop was conveniently located along the route we’d walk to the university for classes.  One day around noon, I stopped in for a trim.  I was the last customer he’d take before having a break for lunch and his daily siesta.  (Italians are much better at resting than we are.  Come to think of it, they’re also much better at making wine than we are…so maybe there is a connection after all!) 

While I was in the chair, a mother and her young son came to the door, hoping to sneak in for a haircut, too.  The barber told her they’d have to come back in the afternoon.  The irritated mother told him she’d make it worth his while…and implied they might never come back to his barbershop if he didn’t oblige.   He turned them away, nonetheless.  After a few more snips with his scissors, he looked at me in the mirror and shared with me a lesson I hope never to forget: “I don’t live to work.  I work to live.”

He then silently finished giving me my haircut, and we both left for lunch.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Don’t live to work.  Work to live.  And rest to live.  This Sunday and every Sunday, be sure to rest in Jesus.

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