The Oxygen of the Soul, 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), July 23, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
16th Sunday in OT, Year B
July 23, 2000
Jer 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34

1) Last week, we focused on the fact that each Christian, every one of us, has the vocation to be a missionary, to spread the Gospel. Jesus sends each Christian out on a mission to spread his Good News by word and deed, just as he sent out the first apostles.

2) In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the second part of the picture. Jesus knew that merely sending the his disciples out to labor in the vineyards of the Lord was not enough. If they just preached the Gospel, they would eventually run out of physical, emotional and — most importantly — spiritual gas. He knew that if they were ever to be effective preachers of the Gospel, long term or short term, they had to come back to Jesus regularly, talk to him about how things are going, and rest with him.

3) What Jesus was teaching the apostles by this lesson of pulling them aside and taking them out into the middle of the lake to spend time resting with him and talking with him was prayer. Alongside every missionary activity, alongside every aspect of human life, there has to be time for prayer. Prayer is to the spiritual life what breathing is to the physical life. We can only hold our breath for so long before we either take a breath or start to die. Similarly with our whole Christian lives. Either we pray — really pray — or our souls start to atrophy because they no longer receive the spiritual oxygen that they need from prayer to keep going.

4) Many Christians look at prayer as something they have to or want to do for God. They come to Mass because God commanded it. They say a daily Rosary or come to make a holy hour because they want to please Him. But while it is obviously very good to attend Mass or pray in order to please God, God wants us to pray not because he needs it but because he knows we need it. He wants us to pray not so that we can give him pleasure but so that he can give us pleasure, the deep lasting joy of a much stronger and more loving relationship with him.

5) We see this in today’s Gospel. Jesus pulls the disciples aside after their missionary labors so that he can talk to them about what they had done and taught and so that they can be refreshed. It says that people were coming and going in such numbers that it was impossible for them even to eat. While that was true on the material level — that the crowds were so numerous they could not get any food — it was also true on the spiritual level, that, with so much commotion, it was impossible for them to be nourished by Jesus. So he took them into the boat. (The boat has always been a symbol of the Church.) Then the apostles and Jesus went off to a deserted place together and spent time together. This is the model of all prayer. To go to meet Jesus, to talk to him about all we’ve done and said, and to let him take us to a deserted place where, momentarily free from the hustle and bustle of life, we can be fed by him not only for the mission he gives to us but for the journey toward his Father’s eternal kingdom.

6) Today, more and more people are praying less and less. After work or after school, rather than head to Mass or to prayer, many people just flip on the television. The average American, according to a recent survey, watches an incredible six hours of television per day. Now, I’m certainly not against television, although each one of us here could criticize some of the programs we can find on television. And television at times can be relaxing, but it can never really refresh people. Some people today are wasting their lives — literally, one-forth of them — in front of a television set, surfing from one channel to another, from basically the time they return home to the time they go to bed. Imagine the difference if the average American spent at least ONE hour of those six hours on average watching the tube going to Jesus, telling him about the day, what you’ve done and said, listening attentively to his interior inspirations and, simply praying. Or taking out the Bible and meditating on the life of Jesus. Or going on a walk with a spouse praying the rosary in the presence of the Lord. Or making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in Church. Or best of all, attending an afternoon Mass.

7) I go through all of this discussion about television’s disproportionate share of the time of the typical American because the most common response I get from Catholics when I, in one forum or another encourage them to pray, is, “Father, I don’t have the time to pray.” Sometimes I hear the same response from brother priests or from seminarians studying to be priests. My normal rejoinder to such a statement is “Well, do you find the time to eat?” “Of course,” they reply. “Do you find the time to sleep?” Yes, they state again. “Then why can’t you,” I conclude, “find 30 minutes to an hour each day to go to meet the Lord in prayer?” The question really comes down to one of priorities and desire. There really are no good excuses. Something less important in the day could be cut — like, for example, television. For a believing Christian not to make it an absolute priority to set time every single day to pray and grow in relationship with the Lord is crazy. What could be more important than this relationship with the Lord? We all have certain obligations. None of us here has now the vocation of a contemplative Carmelite such that we could spend all day in front of the tabernacle. But we can all make time each day for the Lord. One of my spiritual directors once gave me great advice, which was to make an actual appointment with the Lord each day, to put it in my daily agenda, and not to let anything — except an actual emergency — intrude upon it. If I were to tell you that tomorrow the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, were coming to Espirito Santo and that I would like to offer you the opportunity to have an hour to talk with him alone, share the faith with him, get his advice, etc., would you take the appointment? I think everyone here in this Church would consider that the privilege of a lifetime and would take it in a heart beat. Well, I can guarantee you that tomorrow you can have an appointment with the Pope’s own boss, Jesus Christ, here in this Church or in any Church in this city, or even in the silence of your room at home. Not just the Pope’s Boss but the creator of the world — all the mountains and seas, and most importantly you — and the only one who ever loved you so much, with such a burning love, that he came all the way down from heaven to be bloodily tortured and killed on a Cross just for you, so that you might have the chance to spend eternity with him forever in heaven. And he, who created the Pope, the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings, wants to have an appointment with you tomorrow. Anyone of us here would be positively insane if we did not take this appointment tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and every day.

8 ) The more we pray, the more we spend time with Jesus, the more we listen to him and ask for his help so that we might live the Christian life of love more fully, the more we become like Jesus. Furthermore, the more we pray and actively try to put on the mind and the heart of Christ, as St. Paul tells us to do, they more we become capable of bringing Christ to others. St. Thomas Aquinas used to say “You cannot give what you do not have.” Unless we experience the presence of Jesus in our lives and grow much more deeply in a personal relationship with him through the conversation with Him which is prayer, we cannot really give him to others that we love. And Jesus is the greatest gift we could ever give to another. This is ultimately the missionary vocation each of us has, as we talked about last week, to give Jesus to others. In order to be able to accomplish it we need to pray.

9) Upon disembarking from the boat, from their time together, Jesus and the apostles saw a huge crowd. Jesus pitied them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. How many people today fill that description! Sheep wandering lost, going from one talk show host to the next, from sports stars to movie stars, from advice columnists to horoscopes, from rock singers to politicians. But there’s only one Shepherd who leads to the fullness of human life in this life or the next and that is Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Today, he, as the Good Shepherd, if we’ve wandered far from a life of true prayer, has come to hunt us down, put us on his shoulder and bring us back. He wants to guide us, as we hear in the responsorial psalm, to the right paths, to restful waters, to verdant pastures where he refreshes our soul. Those verdant pastures, those restful waters, are prayer. He says in St. John’s Gospel, “I know my sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This is an incredible teaching: Jesus wants us to know him with the intimacy with which His Father knows him and he wants to know us with the intimacy which which He knows His Father! How could we possibly come to that intimacy without prayer! He adds, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Today, we can ask how hard we try to tune out all of the noise of human life so that we might tune Him in, to listen to this voice of the Good Shepherd calling us to Himself. He is calling us to rest with him, to spend time with him, so that he can give us his life to the full, and so that we can share that life with all we love.

10) Apostolic mission and prayer. These are the two hinges of authentic Christian living. The Christian life is more than just showing up on Sundays, punching in our time card for an hour, and then moving on with our “business” the rest of our week. The Christian life is one of an intimate, ever-growing deep relationship with Jesus. And like in any relationship that is worth anything, with a husband or wife, with a good friend, if we want it to last and grow, we’ve got to put in the time. Jesus created us with freedom and he will never force us to pray, but he invites us urgently to come and pray. He encourages us, as he did his first disciples, to “pray always,” in the midst of our work, of our study, of our day, to unite what we’re doing with him, as the apostles united their missionary labors with him. But then he encourages all of us to take time away from that and make time so that he can visit with us and change our lives.

11) Sunday Mass is a great place to start. The Christian Sabbath is a gift of the Lord for us so that we can make time for the Lord, because he knows how much we need it. Sunday is not God’s way of putting taxes on our week, six days for you, one for me. Rather it’s a gift so that we might come to him to be refreshed in our Christian life. “The Sabbath was made for man,” Jesus tells us. God gave us the Sabbath, he made it for us, so that we could learn on the Sabbath to be truly who we are called to be, by having the time to grow in our relationship with God who created us out of nothing but love and redeemed us out of nothing but love and is waiting in love for each of us to say, yes, today, I will make an appointment with him, to spend a half hour with him, just the two of us. And then the day after tomorrow. And then the next day. To do it each day until that day in which our appointment will never come to an end, when we rest forever in the joyful presence of the Lord in heaven.