Sometime shortly after God organized the world from original chaos... paintings, sculptures, and icons began emerging to interpret the stories of scripture and theologies of Christian living.
Whether introduced through popular media, childhood bible stories, or intense academic study and focus, most of us are familiar with some form of Christian artwork.
There are numerous icons depicting Mary, the mother of God, whether holding her infant boy in all their radiance, or standing at the foot of the cross under her son's broken and bleeding body.
More recently, Warner Sallman, inspired by William Holman Hunt, created a familiar image of the long-haired, white-robed Christ in a lighted garden knocking at the knob-less door to our hearts. Perhaps the most widely known piece of artwork portraying Christ and his apostles is Leonardo Da Vinci's depiction of "The Last Supper."
From a dark room, the twelve disciples crowd the table around Jesus, while both adoration and hysteria are evident as they share bread and wine wrestling with the words their savior has served them.
While the focus is obviously Christ as the center-- the host for this feast-- it is the apostles who are around him that create the wider range of emotions they feel from their last night together.
And it is these same apostles we hear about in this gospel reading from Mark that have returned to Jesus after their first mission trip in the world.
For almost two years, from the day of their calling until he first sent them out in pairs, they had not left Jesus' side as they witnessed him-- in apparent rapid succession-- perform miracle upon miracle.
They watched as he drove out evil spirits, healed one person after another, cleansed a man with leprosy, healed a paralyzed man, casted out demons, saved a girl from dying, and healed a bleeding woman, just to name a few.
He told them many parables, teaching them how to further their mission, and to understand the kingdom of God.
These twelve stuck by Jesus' side-- apprentices to his healing and restoring ways, caught up in the excitement of who Jesus was and what he was doing, and what he was teaching....
But then it was time...
Jesus called his 12 apostles and sent them out to do the work they had witnessed in him. He sent them out two by two, and they took with them the authority to cast out demons, to anoint the sick, to cure broken bodies, to teach people about the kingdom of God.
Who knows just how long they were out there, but by the end of their mission and upon their return, when they saw Jesus in the distance, they probably hauled off in a pure sprint to reach him, much like that son who ran into his father's wide open arms, after being away too long.
Their return from their maiden adventure is not documented in any readily available Christian art, and has certainly not been publicized widely in popular culture.
But it could be--and, quite frankly, it should be.
With brilliant brush strokes on a large canvas, the scene could be painted for this tender moment. The largest object would be the tree covered in hues of green leaves, that are dancing in the gentle evening sunlight. Collapsed beneath it, bathed in its generous shade, the apostles gather around Jesus, this rag-tag band of former fishermen and freshly formed messengers, exhausted from their recently frantic lives.
The scars of their travels cover their bodies.... Without any protection and a lack of traveling food supply, dependent on the kindness of strangers for a simple meal, these men are thinner than before, their ribs exposed through torn clothing, the same garments they departed in.
Most of them have tan lines running across their feet, where their sandals--now removed--once pressed in the soles of them worn thin, evidence of the miles they had covered, and the number of times the sand had been knocked off on an inhospitable doorstep.
These men are reclining next to Jesus, you feel they have been telling him story after story, of how many people they were able to help, of how many lives that have been restored, but all at an expense to their own preservation. They are nestled into the green grass that covers the landscape, staring up into the white clouds dotting a sky, giving birth to a perfect shade of blue.
Just on the left side of the canvas is a lake, still and quiet, yet the remnants of a storm linger far in the distance. Just at the edge of the water is a boat, one that has weathered many storms, but is strong and sturdy, and ready to hold the apostles, and all their cares.
On the front of that boat is a basket overflowing with all different kinds of food, including fruits and meats, and the finest bread hands have ever made.
However, if you look on the other side of that lake, just barely recognizable, there seems to be crowd of people heading this direction.
Then, on the other side of the canvas, off in the distance, just at the crest of a hill, you can faintly see another crowd coming into view. They know where Jesus and his disciple are, and they will soon be within earshot demanding the attention and compassion of them all.
The artist has painted Jesus as the only one whose face is turned towards the crowds. His expression is one of knowing, without a hint of panic that the disciples could predict.
Besides, most of them are gazing into the sky as they remember their adventures, reflecting on their work, feeling their exhaustion, and one or two are already fast asleep.
Jesus, sensing that his precious children need to rest, knowing they have nothing else to give, yet seeing the crowd approaching, whispers an invitation to his disciples, an offering of all they need: "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."
If we study this picture long enough, we can probably identify with almost every aspect of it or emotion in it, although some may draw us in closer than others. We can identify with those storm clouds in the distance, the trials we have overcome, the difficult journeys we have been on, the mountains we have climbed.
We can probably name the things that feel like the crowds lingering just over a hill, or around the bend-- pressures to work long hours to meet deadlines or the stress of not having work at all; school projects or papers, pressures to finish an assignment, exams to prepare for.
There are responsibilities for families we love dearly, beautiful children that need us constantly, or the pain of a broken connection and the dreams that have been shattered.
And on top of all those emotions, we are overwhelmed by the amount of things there are to DO in our lives.... Each day we are pressured to give more, produce more, care more, accomplish more. Our lives can be so busy-- the world can make so many demands, and even when they are wonderful things we love, life can still be so busy... physically, emotionally, exhaustingly busy.
I have recently been reading Barbara Brown Taylor's latest book: An Altar in the World. It has been the place where I try to slow down, and do something just for myself, spending a little time reflecting on each chapter. But I am currently stuck on one particular part she calls "The Practice of Saying No." As a matter of fact, I have read this chapter at least four times now.
In it she offers insights on just how busy we are, the lost art of hearing Jesus' invitation to us, and giving ourselves permission to rest to claim the Sabbath time God gives us.
She even has the audacity to accuse me-- in all the busyness of my life-- of trying to earn my own salvation.1
In one part, she notes that in China the polite answer to the question of "How are you?" is to say, "I am very busy, thank you."2
That is the measure of our success-- an indication of how we run in this world-- and measure of lives, no matter where we live.
And then I think about Jesus' invitation again....
We too could use that cool grass between our toes, the blue sky overhead, the rest underneath a tree, the Jesus who listens to us. And the gift is that we too are on the guest list, and Jesus extends the same invitation to us, in our weary, tired lives, with demands just around the corner. "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."
The invitation is there, and the painting is not complete... until we can see ourselves as a part of it.
Accepting Jesus' invitation may not be so clean as a boat floating on the open sea, far from all the things we need to escape from. But accepting his invitation is crucial for our lives for us to live the abundant life he intends for us.
We, like the apostles, are not able to give from a place that is empty. We are not able to be present, fully present, to our families, our lives, our work, unless we can-- for however long-- be fully present to Jesus in a place that nourishes our very souls.
Our one task is to put this ahead of all the other things...to open ourselves up to hear his invitation, and respond with the space and the time to listen to his call to take our heavy laden lives, and offer it all to Jesus who will take it from us, even for just a little while.
Listen to his voice, calling us into perfect peace, the kind that only he can give.
"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."
Let us pray:
Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Collect for Saturday: (Book of Common Prayer, page 97)]
1 Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith: Harper Collins, New York, NY; 2009. 135.
2 Taylor: An Altar in the World, 123.