Matthew 11:25-30, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I wonder what rest means nowadays. Perhaps, the immediate thought would be relief—having that quiet time to breathe and recharge, away from the maddening ebb and flow of information, virtual meetings, and various stimuli that incite intense emotions that range from sadness to anger to frustration to tiredness. We have learned to live inside and cope with the virtual world—a protective bubble that allows us to be safe and well from the disease, enable essential work and keep our social activities somehow going. It is a different world and it can be exhausting. It also is a marketplace that is hard to detach from. We need to breathe and shut down once in a while.
Days pass into months and this longing for rest can unsurprisingly evolve into an idea of a vacation: a long escape to one’s happy place. For some countries in the West, it is the end of the academic year. This ushers in the summer season—a period where families escape to places, cultures, and activities that would foster recreation and revival of tired human spirits. But this pandemic crisis has changed all that: options are few, job losses mean smart and frugal budget allocation, and more importantly, the awakened sense of solidarity and justice marks some summer escapades as expensive tastes. It is hoped that the easing of lockdown measures in some countries will provide, in part, a semblance of vacation and normalcy, especially for those who have struggled mentally in an unusually long lockdown. Still, the yearning for rest is not only in the form of a breather—we desire to fly away to a happy place and spend a few days there for our own recovery.
Others wish to rest and their concept of it is like having a reset button—the fancy ability for a restart—due to the magnanimity of loss, ill-effects, and seeming hopelessness of how events are unfolding. Reset comes with a long pause, followed by a new start, a new beginning. It is far from the “new normal” that most people are struggling to live with, let alone accept. It is a deep sigh and longing for the old normal as if this crisis never happened. It is not just a chance to gasp for air or to escape to a lonely place. It is a yearning for a new slate.
These ideas of rest are attractive, real, and powerful. They speak of the heaviness of living in a time of seemingly unresolvable crisis. They point to serious burdens that we are forced to carry and cope. Our present suffering reminds me of Israel’s exile—a banishment so long and hard that it takes more than a breather or an escape to a happy place to console those who yearn for their old home—the place where they belong. There is a deep desire for rest, to rest from their daily struggle to accept that their homeland is no more and that they have to survive in a place ruled by foreign kings who worship foreign gods. This type of rest does not only refer to a need for a breather, escape, or reset button. Deep within, and as a community, is a desire that is spiritual: a longing for the Sabbath. For those who live in the exile, it is a yearning to see the day of the Lord, a time when human labour takes a pause so people can have time with God at a place they call home. The prophet Zechariah, in the first reading, responds to Israel’s longing with a promise—God will come and save his people. The Sabbath that they desire would be fulfilled by the Lord of the Sabbath: It is the Lord who would provide rest to his people and bring them back.
Jesus repeats this in a timeless and beautiful invitation: “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give your rest.” It is not just having a breather or an escape to a happy place. What our Lord, I think, is offering is a Sabbath rest—a time where we are able to recognise His visitation, and in doing so, grant ourselves the time to be at home with God. It is rest for the soul and body from the suffering of an exile-like experience when we continuously search for, but to no satisfaction, that which would give us life and bring us home. It comes with, I surmise, a deep consolation—the rest that refreshes the human spirit because she is found and attended to by God. Only if she recognises her time of visitation.
Pope Francis once preached that we ought to relentlessly try to overcome spiritual blindness. Spiritual blindness, he says, is the failure to recognise the time of God’s visit in our lives. Part of overcoming spiritual blindness is the practice of discernment—a spiritual and practical activity of “detecting” God moving about in our thoughts, emotions, events, affairs, or desires. It is a heightened feel for God especially in our periods of rest. Our proper and generous exercise of spiritual sense gives us opportunities to be found by God. In doing so, we can connect with Him and let Him touch the vulnerable, tired, and sceptical parts of ourselves.
God comes to visit us where we are, at this time where most of us need a breather, wanting to escape to a happy place, or desperately wishing for a reset button. What He offers is his rest—a Sabbath—that only He can give. It is an invitation to be with the Lord—to breathe with him, to spend time learning from Him, and to allow His Spirit to make a home in us, as St. Paul points out. May our Sabbaths revive our tired and desperate spirits. May our periods with the Lord strengthen our resolve to continue to carry His yoke—to follow Him. And may we share the fruits of our Sabbaths to one another as means to help us navigate our way through and out of the crisis as a community with much encouragement, patience, and hope.
*image from the Internet