A brief history of Sabbath-taking, by the Rev. Dr. Clair McPherson. This article appears in the Sabbath edition of Trinity News. To receive a free subscription to the print edition of Trinity News, send your mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please note that in doing so, we may use your email and mailing addresses to inform you of special parish events and resources available on this website).
Marcus Aurelius came to Rabbi Judah’s house to dine. Their conversation was pleasant, but the food was sensational. The best he had ever encountered, thought Marcus. An epicure’s delight for a Stoic emperor.
Marcus decided the next week to duplicate the meal for Rabbi Judah. The Rabbi ate and was pleased, but Marcus felt something missing.
“I thank you, Rabbi, you are too kind. But delicious though this meal may be, some ingredient, some spice, is missing. If you will only tell me what that spice is, I shall procure it within the hour!”
“I shall indeed tell you. But you cannot procure it.”
“I am the emperor, Rabbi. I command, and any spice is procured.”
“No, you can’t. For we last ate on the seventh day — the Sabbath. That was the missing spice. And however powerful you are, even you cannot access the Sabbath today.”
That Sabbath spice, I believe, is missing from our own spirituality. Although we are told Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, and that going to church keeps the Sabbath commandment — it isn’t, and we don’t. How can we recover the Sabbath? Let’s begin at the beginning.
CREATION AND COMMANDMENT
In the first story in Scripture, God created the cosmos in six days, and then “on the seventh day God rested.” The verb is shavat.
At Sinai, we witness another act of divine creativity: God creates his people through mutual covenant. Among the first commandments he issues — and before he prohibits murder, theft, and adultery — is the commandment, “You shall be mindful of the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Sometimes we need to be ordered to rest. And so the Sabbath was a commandment of enormous importance. Some Rabbis, in fact, have taught that it truly is the greatest commandment of them all. Rabbi Levi, for example, said that all the other commandments are summed up in Sabbath-keeping.
There was an even higher commandment — the commandment to love God, neighbor, and self. That was the one commandment, the only one, Jesus allowed to take priority over Sabbath. And he not only said that, he tested it by breaking the Sabbath in the name of compassion.
Some (okay, many) have misunderstood. Jesus was not lax. Nor did he toss the Sabbath aside. What he did was show the extraordinary and supreme importance of love by testing it against something as profoundly important as Sabbath. Which was, as he explained, God’s gift to us: a blessing as well as a command. Sabbath, Jesus said, was made for humanity — not man for the Sabbath.
The first Christians understood. They knew that Jesus broke the Sabbath only to make a point. So they continued to observe it. They kept the Sabbath, in the full sense. And they observed the first day of the week as well — the day when God had created light, the day when Jesus had risen from the dead — as a day of creative, holy activity, not a day of sacred, restorative stillness.
Four hundred years later, they were still keeping it. Leo the Great, for example, Bishop of Rome in the middle of the fifth century, refers in a letter to “our usual seventh day Sabbath practices of rest and quiet,” and distinguished this from the Lord’s Day celebrations.
SUNDAY IS THE SABBATH DAY, RIGHT?
The evolution of the Christian identification of Sabbath with Sunday is actually relatively recent. It was the Puritans, in the 16th and 17th centuries, who really began to legislate Sabbathlike observances on Sunday (a tendency Anglicans resisted from the outset). This had two effects: it destroyed any sense of the seventh day as a genuine Sabbath; and it effectively eliminated the joyful, festive character of the Lord’s Day. The real Sabbath, as observant Jews know, is something to be anticipated eagerly, and welcomed joyfully (like a bride, say the Chassidim). When Shabbat is ended, it is sad to see her go. Christian attempts to restore Saturday observance often fail. They always have the turning-back-the-clock feel, the air of unreality always associated with nostalgia. There is probably no pragmatic way to reclaim the seventh day. Even the traditional Friday “observance” has disappeared, first as a “Catholic” custom disdained by non-Romans, then as an oldfashioned thing by Roman Catholics themselves. All that is left for many Christians — possibly and sadly the majority in the West — is that Sunday morning devoted to church-going.
SABBATH REALITY What we can reclaim is the reality of Sabbath. The seventh day was only one of the ways Sabbath was marked by the Hebrews — there was also a seventh-year Sabbath, there was the jubilee year (a seventh-decade Sabbath), and there were various yearly interruptions in the cycle of labor. The first Christians observed all these as well. They kept, for example, a noonday “Good Friday” hour in honor of the hour when Christ died on the Cross. And they looked forward to a great final Sabbath, when God would provide us heavenly rest in anticipation of the great eighth Day of Creation, when light and resurrection would be permanent and eternal.
We can follow suit. As St. Augustine reminds us, we keep Sabbath whenever we accept the Lord’s invitation in Psalm 46: “be still, and know that I am God.” If we look back into Genesis once again, we realize one very important final point. Sabbath is what God did, at the climax of the first week of creation — and after the creation of his signature creature, his image and likeness. To be invited into Sabbath is to live into that likeness. It is a command and a blessing. It is God’s compliment to us: we rest on Sabbath. Just like God.
The Rev. Dr. Clair McPherson is a retreat leader, spiritual director, workshop leader, author, and parish priest. He has taught spirituality, history, and theology at colleges and seminaries for 30 years. Feature photo courtesy of judepics via Flickr.