In preparing for last Sunday’s sermon on Jesus’ healing of the woman on the Sabbath, it occurred to me that in conversations with other Christians about what we believe and what we practice, the subject of Sabbath almost never comes up. Why should that be? Either we don’t give the subject the attention it deserves, or the notion of a Sabbath or a “day of rest” no longer appeals to us – it is a relic of a bygone era to be discarded as hopelessly irrelevant and out of date.
But do we really want to reduce the ten commandments to nine? Because the remembrance of the Sabbath day is one of the foundations of the practice of faith as received by Moses on Mt Sinai. The commandment is recorded in the book of Exodus 20:8-11.
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
Christians incorporated a version of it into their practice, but unfortunately it has come down to us today as a form of legalism, exemplified in the caricature of a 19th century New England Puritan, who hung his cat on Monday for killing a mouse on Sunday. The Sabbath has, sadly, become a symbol for rigidity and old fashioned attitudes.
In Orthodox Judaism however, the meaning of Sabbath takes on a more profound character. In his book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, the rabbi and theologian Abraham Heschel writes
“Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is the day on which we are called upon to share what is eternal in time…”
The clue to our understanding is in the reading from Exodus, where it states that “the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” That is, the Lord made it a holy day. What does that mean? It means to see the day, as Heschel describes it, as “not a different state of consciousness but a different climate, [a different atmosphere.]” We inhabit the Sabbath as if we were breathing a different air, or sensing that what was familiar is now being presented to us in a different way.
A few years ago the writer and poet Clive James, who was suffering from a terminal illness, was asked in an interview how he saw life now that he knew the end was near. He replied that when he observes the world now, he sees every created thing as having a “radiance.” In other words, he sees things from the point of view of someone living within the Sabbath, where things and people bear the divine glow of the creator.
You need to get out to see this for yourself. For this very reason, Sabbath is a good day to take a walk in the country or visit a remote place, and be lost in wonder and awe at the beauty of God’s creation. Or, if you want to stay at home, make your Sabbath a family day: Jews see it as a day of “family and community; of spirit and of physical well-being…of prayer and study; of synagogue and home; a day of rest and self-indulgence; of compassion and self-esteem.”
Naturally there are challenges for us in observing the Sabbath. The rabbis of old used to ask the question, “is it possible for a human being to do all of his or her work within six days?” The answer to the question is to rest on the Sabbath as if all your work was done. This requires us to shift our approach from one of doing to one of being. On the Sabbath we become less like Martha and more like Mary.
The church has its part to play in remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. The Christian keeps Sunday as the day of rest. Every week we gather to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection; the Eucharist is a banquet to which all are invited, where we receive a taste of what heaven is like. At church we enter God’s holy house, and he welcomes us and feeds us; God is preparing us for the day when we will be with him in heaven and share his glory.
After preaching the sermon, these thoughts about Sabbath stayed with me the whole day. My Sabbath is Monday, and how was I to spend it? In recent times I have given over part of the day to work, but in the light of what I had said, I felt the need to enter into the Sabbath as fully as possible as a way of drawing closer to God. On Monday Ruth and I drove to Philadelphia and visited the Museum of the American Revolution. Afterwards we strolled through the streets of old Philadelphia before deciding to eat at the reconstructed 18th century City Tavern. Over dinner we decided to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the cell phones, which were packed away.
If I felt closer to God, it was because of a change in attitude to my “day of rest.” I was no longer feeling pressed to complete this or that task. I could let go of that – for one day, at least – and enter into a little “God time.” In that time I was overcome with a sense of blessing and gratitude for God’s presence and for his creation. I was learning what it means to observe the Sabbath.
In peace and love