The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
~ Mark 6:30-34
The figure of the Shepherd is seen all over Scripture. Some of the famous heroes of the Old Testament, notably David and Moses, were shepherds when God called them. The Shepherd represents God himself. In the book of Ezekiel, God says: “‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep (Ez 34 :11-12). Our first reading speaks of false shepherds, and the impending punishment God will bring to them. It ends with a declaration by God that he will gather the remnant of his flock (Jer 23:1-6). God is seen as the protector and provider of his people who are often lost and wandering. Those placed as spiritual leaders over the people are meant to represent God the shepherd and it is to the extent that they mar this image that they are condemned. Instead of showing the image of God, these false shepherds showed the image of themselves and taught their own ideas verses God’s word.
In the Gospel reading we see rest and peace for those who follow Christ closely. The apostles have returned from teaching and Jesus says “Come away by yourselves and rest”. The necessity of formation is present here. Before going out to the people, the apostles, the first priests, are told to contemplate and rest. Truly in order to instruct others, they must have the knowledge themselves. One can’t give what one doesn’t have. The life of prayer is close intimacy with Christ. Contemplation comes before action. We must know and understand the love of God before spreading it to others in the same way a candle must be aflame before it lights the room. Jesus teaches the apostles proper shepherding skills, so he takes them to a deserted place where they may pray. With prayer comes rest and peace amidst a chaotic world.
In Psalm 23, rest comes with following the Shepherd: “In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul.” And this is exactly what the crowds clamor for as they relentlessly chase Jesus and the apostles. They don’t want more miracles, they don’t even want to eat! They want rest for their souls, the restful waters of Christ’s words. We are reminded of the bride in the Song of Songs who begs: “Tell me, O you whom my soul loves, Where do you pasture your flock, Where do you make it lie down at noon?” (Song 1:7). When a person lacks the presence of God in their life, emptiness results. They try to fill the emptiness with all kinds of things, food, money, friendships, pleasures, risky behaviors… anything. Every human soul gapes hungrily towards the divine which he does not know. St. Augustine addresses this basic condition: “My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in you.” Jesus sees this spiritual starvation. He notes the people’s turmoil, how lost they are without them. And thus he has pity on them, these sheep without a shepherd. And because he is a true shepherd, he stops and goes to them.
Every priest should see in this a reflection of himself, tired and hungry but still going out to feed others. His vocation of that of a shepherd, feeding and guarding the people. When hearing the words “Behold I am with you always,” (Matt 28:20), the priest’s heart rejoices for it is through his vocation, that Christ remains present among his people. The priest does not operate on his own volition, for he’d have more trouble feeling pity, especially when tired! The Christ-nature in him feels pity and longs to shepherd the straying crowds. Christ works though him not from him and so we say the priest acts In persona Christi – in the person of Christ. It is important to remember that Christ is the Supreme Shepherd and Bishop of our souls yet he has appointed priests to represent him. Those in the ministry act as “sub-shepherds” and images of Christ.
The apostle Paul understood this calling when he wrote “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:20) and in another place “If I have forgiven anything, I do so in the person of Christ” (2 Cor 2:10). Before Jesus leaves the apostles he makes the connection between priesthood and shepherding very clear. He asks Peter to “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). This notion carried on in the Catholic Church with the crosier or shepherd’s staff which is part of a bishop’s regalia.
In this Gospel we see a reflection of God the Shepherd, the life of prayer and the priesthood of Christ. All show a path leading towards the Divine where we find fulfillment and rest. We know that Jesus nourishes us by his words, by intimacy with us and the continued presence of his priests. He is the one we seek even when we don’t know it. He is the true shepherd of our souls who cares for us in a world that does not seem to care. Let all who are weary consider these things, follow the example of the crowds and relentlessly follow Jesus.