Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
My room is getting messier, the to-do lists longer, and all the burdens on my time much heavier. There is so much I simply have to get done before Christmas. I’ve finished my academic work for the term, but all the things I’ve been putting off for months with the excuse, ‘I can’t do that during term’, are now piling up with a vengeance.
So this invitation from Jesus to rest is immediately attractive – and yet problematic. How can I rest when there is so much to be done?
|Bouguereau, Rest at harvest (1865)|
Perhaps I need to re-order my priorities. Do I rest in order to work, or work in order to rest? Activity and achievement are not the only important things. Jesus regularly took time away from the crowds to pray (e.g. Luke 5:16). I can learn from his example and see that activism is not the be-all and end-all.
In our culture, especially as we get busier towards Christmas, we need to avoid a utilitarian focus on work. Our common expressions about restfulness as 're-charging my batteries' or a potential 'waste of time' may reveal that we live in order to work. This is unfortunately the modern tendency, as noted by Max Weber in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). An older and wiser philosophical tradition (especially since Aristotle) teaches instead that we should work in order to live.
Ultimately, we must work to have leisure. This point was made excellently by Josef Pieper in Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952), arguing that leisure is the foundation for all civilised existence. And it is the basis of religion, which ‘sanctifies’ or ‘sets aside’ time and space gratuitously for the worship of God. The temple or church is an unproductive space, and the Sabbath is an unproductive day, and that is why we must cherish them – that is why we offer them freely and generously back to God. What's more, the same gratitude to God can be expressed in prayer anywhere and anytime.
Getting things done is, of course, a good aim. Work is no bad thing in itself. But it should be sanctified with an attentiveness to God. We can pray before and after work, and even make of our work a prayer in itself. If we work for Christ and in Christ, our labours will be a joy and a blessing. And then Christmas will be a truly restful celebration.