Come away … and rest a while

I am very grateful to Revd Julia Lacey, formerly an ordinand of the Diocese in Europe, ordained priest on Saturday 26 June and now serving as a curate in the Diocese of Chelmsford for writing this week’s reflection – accompanied appropriately by a painting produced in Geneva (half a millennium ago) which is a glorious example of artistic contextualization.  Julia’s reflection focuses on this week’s lectionary Gospel, Mark 6.30-34, 53-end, and the suggested Sunday psalm, the beloved Psalm 23.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Konrad Witz, La pêche miraculeuse – The miraculous draft of fishes, Geneva 1444

‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’ (Mark 6.31).

The summer holiday season is upon us, at least for quite a few of us. And so as well for the disciples it seems. Jesus is whisking them away on a cruise to give them a well-deserved time of rest and restoration after a frantic time of healing and preaching – ‘For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat’. On top of it all they had just heard of (and seen?) the death of their friend John the Baptist.

The disciples are running back to Jesus to tell him all about their work, I imagine also all about their feelings, their – most likely not always welcoming – reception in the towns and villages, and about the events surrounding John’s death. In my mind’s eye I see them variedly trudging wearily on their way to Jesus, worn out by this first time ministering to the people on their own; or skipping excitedly towards him amazed by the power and authority that Jesus has granted them; or maybe running in alarm to find Jesus and warn him about the violence perpetrated against John.

Whatever their experiences and feelings, I can only assume that they were quite high on adrenaline.

I somewhat know how they felt. Three years ago, in June 2018, I went to a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, an intense 3-day probing into my and my fellow candidates’ vocation to ministry in the Church of God. When a couple of weeks later Rev Canon William Gulliford (Diocese in Europe’s Director of Ordinands) called me to let me know that I had been recommended for training, I was at once excited, overjoyed, yet also anxious. And then the motorway hit! Having to study again while working full-time, travelling to residential weekends to the remotest part of East-Anglia, learning ‘on the ground’ from Rev Canon Alexander Gordon (the then chaplain of Holy Trinity Geneva), fitting in some form of family life as well – and oh yes, playing catch-up with my mixed emotions; then a move from France to the UK in the midst of COVID, ordination as deacon last September, learning a new role in a new place, then ordination to the priesthood two weeks ago – – – I really am in need of a holiday now, I think.

How fortuitous it is then that I get to reflect on these passages from the Gospel of Mark. Admittedly, they are cobbled together and often overshadowed by the part of the story that we don’t get to read this week. But I think this somewhat artificial way of putting the two passages together was a stroke of genius by the commission responsible for the common lectionary which the Church of England follows here. In a gospel that is characterized by its hectic, almost breathless account of Jesus’ ministry, these snapshots of something different could easily be overlooked.

We all know of course that overlooking our need for rest and quietness regularly wreaks havoc in our lives. A Sabbath rest is good not only for us individually but also to find the time to come together as communities, to re-focus and to encourage one another. For many of us Sunday worship offers that opportunity – but how many people in our wider communities go for long periods of time without a rest?

Our Gospel reading today reminds us then of the importance of rest – not only for our physical and mental well-being but also to fulfill our deepest spiritual need. Just as Psalm 23 promises us: ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides quiet waters, he refreshes my soul’.

Discipleship is a continuous movement of being sent out into the world by Jesus and coming back to Jesus to re-fuel, only to be sent out again… After every Sunday there is a whole week of disciple-work before it is Sunday again. And, as we see in the second part of the reading, Jesus doesn’t reserve rest just for his disciples. He extends the invitation to be restored and healed to everyone.

However, when I first started to reflect on this passage, something else jumped out at me: the mentioning of the journey to an isolated place on the Sea of Galilee, or ‘the lake’ as it is often called in Mark’s Gospel.

‘The’ lake – albeit a different one – played a large role of my previous life in the Geneva area. And I was reminded of a famous painting by 15th century artist Konrad Witz that is exhibited at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva. You will find a copy of the painting at the top of this reflection.

Konrad Witz is famous for being the first artist who depicts realistic rather than stylized landscapes – and this panel from the ‘St Peter’s altar’ shows a scene very familiar to those living in Geneva: the view over the lake towards the Alps with (from right to left) the Salève, Môle and Voirons mountains in the foreground.

The title only mentions the miraculous draft of fish but if you look closely, you can see that there are several different events described that all happened on or at the Sea of Galilee.

In fact, the disciples’ relationship with Jesus is intrinsically linked with this body of water: here they were first called, here they listened to Jesus teach, it was on this lake that Jesus so dramatically stilled the storm and where they found him walking on the water. Incidentally, have you noticed that Peter is twice in the painting? Once in the boat trying to haul in that miraculous catch, and then again floundering while walking towards Jesus on the water? I wonder whether the big clouds in the sky point to the storm that has just passed?

I would like to think that this multi-scene painting gives us an indication of the kind of rest that Jesus offers us: a Rest with a big R.

As Clare said on this blog a couple of weeks back, the sea or other large bodies of water were a source of great suspicion in the Hebrew culture, the former seat of other gods, the embodiment of chaos and death, cause for fear and dread. It is striking how often Mark mentions that Jesus and the disciples cross over the Sea of Galilee and that Jesus is preaching on the seashore. As a matter of fact, today’s passage combines two different journeys on the Sea.

I don’t think that this is an accident or simply a factual description. I suspect Mark is making an important point: in Jesus God has reconciled his creation to himself. There is no room left for those pockets of dominions belonging to other powers. Even the dreaded sea, the last bastion of demonic power, can be navigated without any risk. Now the waters are indeed still – as Psalm 23 promised. Jesus has brought healing and wholeness to all of creation, not just temporarily or superficially. His Rest is eternal and eternity starts now, another word that Mark likes to use often.

So let’s take our holidays seriously – after all the word comes from ‘holy days’ with ‘holy’ having the same root as ‘wholeness’.

And let us imagine a world where our Christian communities radiate out that Rest with a big R, offering healing and wholeness and a life without fear to everyone – unconditionally.

Julia Lacey

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