Sabbath Moments is a popular buzzword today. A recent search on the Internet turned up about 7 million hits for those words, ranging from books and blogs, to churches promising apparently restful services to those who attend. Essentially, a Sabbath Moment is a brief pause in one’s day to pull away from work, to refresh oneself, to pray, to think about God.
It sounds wonderful to take moments during the day to stop what we are doing, rest our minds and pray (the word sabbath literally means “rest”). This is not a new concept. The Sabbath has been known to humanity, through the witness of the Jewish people, for thousands of years. The question for many of us, though is, what is Sabbath? If we do not know that, how can we have a “Sabbath Moment?” In this Update we’ll take a look.
To the Jews, the Sabbath is not merely a moment but rather a whole day every week, the center of one’s religious life. It is governed by necessary rules in order that each person may enter into the spirituality of this important day. But first, let’s talk about our culture, outside of Judaism. Why are we using this Sabbath term so much now? We must be feeling the need for what Sabbath offers: Rest. It’s the antidote to our cultural pressure cooker.
Productivity, efficiency and busyness are so expected of us in this culture, that many of us feel that work is our real life, and our spiritual life is, at best, peripheral. With the crisis of the worldwide financial system in 2008, and the ensuing recession, the urge to be productive has been joined by a
deep fear. Unemployment is rampant, segments of the economy are not recovering, prices are rising. The only answer seems to be to work harder.
Each of us experiences our cultural pressure cooker in varying degrees. We may believe that our times are unique, that there has never been a culture quite like ours. In many ways, that is true. But the world (as in “the world, the flesh and the devil”) has always exerted its pressure on God’s people to conform, to be afraid, to put God aside in order to attend to business of everyday survival. In the midst of that ancient and ever-new challenge, Jesus still calls us, as he called his first disciples, to “come away...and rest awhile.” (Mark 6:31).
The Sabbath commandment
God’s antidote to our culture and every culture that has ever been, is the command to keep the Sabbath. “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...” (Ex 20:8-10).
The Sabbath commandment is the only one of the Ten Commandments that has to do with how we treat ourselves. The first two commandments have to do with our behavior and attitude toward God. We are to worship no other gods (not even our work!) and we are not to take God’s name in vain. The last seven commandments govern our behavior toward other people. But the Sabbath commandment governs how we treat ourselves. People who work seven days a week become physically weak, mentally exhausted and spiritually debilitated.
For Jewish people, the Sabbath has always been more than an obligation. It is a delight for the observant Jew when Friday afternoon comes around (all Jewish observances begin at sundown). The Sabbath is no heavy burden or outdated, ancient observance. Sabbath observance is considered so important, it takes precedence over any other Jewish feast, including Passover.
To Jews, Sabbath is not merely a day to rest, it is a day to become, to put aside all our doing for one day a week. That is why there are so many laws governing the Sabbath. In order to become who we are, we must stop doing what we normally do. Many Jews believe the Sabbath is outside the constraints of time, a part of and preparation for eternity. “On the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul,” writes the famed Jewish theologian/philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel. “The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”
If our culture disrespects the Sabbath, it is not the first. The Jews have a long history of persecution. Their laws, especially the Sabbath law, were trampled many times. The Egyptians worked the Hebrew children brutally. They certainly would not have allowed them to observe the Sabbath. Centuries later, the Romans were shocked and disturbed that the Jews insisted on taking a whole day off every week. Juvenal, a Roman writer, wrote that Jews “turned lazy, taking no part in the tasks and duties of life” every seventh day.
To the busy Romans, the Jews’ insistence on taking a whole day off every week was proof of their disloyalty to the Empire. In modern times, Jews confined to concentration camps during World War II desperately held onto their faith, especially the Sabbath observance, even though their Nazi jailers made them work seven days a week, from dawn to late at night.
The Jews’ insistence on keeping their laws, especially the Sabbath law, has irritated despots and dictators down through history. Slave masters, whether ancient or modern, know that people who feel free to take one day out of seven to rest and pray, are people that are truly free the other six days of the week. And slave masters’ biggest issue is control of those under them. One has little control over people who turn their backs on the workaday world every seventh day.
Jesus and the Sabbath
Some Christians have a cavalier attitude about the Sabbath, saying that Jesus set aside the Old Testament Law in favor of the New Covenant of love. Yet Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” he said. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (Mt 5:17-18).
What of Jesus’ apparent violations of the Sabbath laws, as when he cured people on the Sabbath? Was Jesus ignoring the Sabbath law? Certainly his actions caused him to be criticized by religious leaders of his day. Still, it is plain that Jesus did not usually spend his Sabbaths healing. In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spends the Sabbath at Simon and Andrew’s house, where, yes, he cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. But the townspeople do not show up with their sick until after sundown, after the Sabbath was over.
More than likely, this was the usual procedure all during Jesus’ ministry. He needed his Sabbaths, too.
Jesus did cure a few individuals on the Sabbath. The religious leaders, always looking for an opportunity to discredit him, would make a big deal of it. Still, these were special situations, cases where perhaps Jesus knew he would not be passing that way again or where the need was too great to wait. More important, God the Father would have told Jesus directly that this healing was necessary right then and there. Jesus had a constant and intimate union with the Father; he knew when to heal on the Sabbath and when to wait.
In one instance, Jesus healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath. When the leader of the synagogue protested, Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Lk 10:15-16).
On another occasion, Jesus told the leaders that the Sabbath was made for people, and not people for the Sabbath, “that is why the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:28).
We modern Christians should not be so quick to set aside the Sabbath. Jesus may have bent the rules to show God’s mercy. But Jesus did not set aside the Sabbath Law as useless, old-fashioned or no longer necessary. And, let’s be honest, most of us are not out there curing the sick or casting out demons on the Sabbath! We are doing chores, shopping, cruising the Internet, or catching up on paperwork.
Keeping the Sabbath today
If you are not keeping the Sabbath, or if your Sabbath consists of going to church on Sunday, then doing your usual shopping and chores the rest of the day, it is time to explore this Commandment. The Sabbath is God’s solution to our weariness and our human tendency to work too long and hard.
One of the most popular Scripture passages is “Come to me....and I will give you rest [Sabbath]” (Mt 11:28). Yet how many of us actually take God up on that offer?
What if we don’t have the time? Sabbath keeping is a choice. We make lots of choices about how we spend our time. We take the time to exercise. We take on new tasks at our work places to get ahead. We modify our schedules when someone we love is sick or when we have a new baby. We know how to make the time for those things that are important.
God has commanded us to keep the Sabbath because God loves us and knows we need a break from this world’s pressures and stresses. We do not break any of the other Commandments. We do not kill, steal, commit adultery, take God’s name in vain, or worship wooden idols. Why do we think the Sabbath Commandment is obsolete?
Besides, if any culture needs Sabbath rest, it is ours.
Still, if we are not keeping the Sabbath and would like to, it will take adjustments both to our thinking and to our schedules. The most important component to Sabbath-keeping is preparation. It will not happen automatically; it must be intentional.
First, you must choose which day you will observe Sabbath. Saturday is the traditional day, but Sunday is the day most Christians observe Sabbath. If your work makes those days impossible, you can choose another day for rest, as long as you are consistent.
Once you have decided on your day of rest, and for most of us, that is going to be Sunday, our Sabbath, you must prepare. All work must be put on hold for a day, so it’s a good idea to do ahead anything that may trouble you on the Sabbath.
The evening before Sabbath, put away all work so that it is not even visible. Cooking Sabbath meals ahead can be a good idea. The household cook gets to relax, too! (If cooking is a relaxing hobby for someone other than the regular cook, that’s another matter.) Anything that will disturb your peace on that day should be taken care of or put away: Homework, household projects, laundry, paperwork, bills, etc. This is a day for relaxation, for enjoying life, for spending time with those we love. Nothing left out to interfere with that.
Now what? We have come to our Sabbath. Perhaps we’ve gone to church and had a nice lunch (prepared the night before). The day stretches ahead, but we don’t know what to do with it. That is the secret of Sabbath: We do not have to do. We get to be. We get to luxuriate in aimlessness; nature-gazing; gentle activities like visiting, reading, listening to music, playing with the kids or pets; and unrepentant napping!
The Sabbath is all about soaking in God’s presence and enjoying all the gifts God has given us, including our loved ones and our very selves.
We will find that, after our Sabbath rest, we have not lost out or fallen behind. In God’s economy, Sabbath-keeping actually nets us more time, not less. Schedules loosen, things get done more easily, we reset priorities. Work and problems that are left to simmer for a day become easier to figure out.
Removing that one-seventh of our week to rest, renew and just be brings order to the chaos of our lives. It turns out that taking time out to do essentially nothing for a whole day each week is the most productive thing we can do. God blesses the Sabbath and blesses us for being obedient. We might just find our schedules mysteriously working out better when we carve out that time to keep the Sabbath.
Of all the things God may ask of us in our lifetimes, keeping the Sabbath is by far the most pleasant sacrifice God asks. People are often surprised at the ease with which they can move into regular Sabbath keeping, as though their minds, bodies and spirits were just waiting for them to figure this out.
And the effects of Sabbath-keeping find their way into our lives during the week, too. Those who keep the Sabbath find “Sabbath moments” stealing up on us every day. In the middle of the workday, no matter what stressors we are experiencing, Sabbath moments become a part of our lifestyle, the calming peace that surrounds us.
Keeping Sabbath, then, is an act of trust in God. It is God who is the center of our lives, working or resting. The Sabbath reminds us of that. For many of us, it may seem like a leap off a dangerous-looking cliff. But it is safe to make that leap, because God is there to catch us.