By The Rev. Cynthia Brust
Growing up between the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches, my concept of “Sabbath” was vague at best. I knew the Ten Commandments included a mandate to keep the seventh day holy, but I don’t remember anyone’s really explaining how that should look. I had a minimal understanding about the Old Testament practice of abstaining from all labor on Saturday and that we Christians moved our holy day to Sunday to honor and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. I assumed, therefore, that “keeping the Sabbath holy” could be fulfilled simply by going to Sunday School and church each week and spending time at Lake Wateree or curled up reading a good book after our family meal at my grandparents’ house.
I have come to realize that the theological meaning of Sabbath goes much deeper and that there are a number of views on both understanding and practicing it. Before God commanded keeping Sabbath in Exodus 20, He modeled it immediately following the completion of creation. In Genesis 2:2-3 we read,
And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These verses don’t suggest God was exhausted from all His efforts: “I need a divine lie-down – creating everything from nothing flat wore me out!” God has no need for “rest” in that sense. He didn’t stop being God or being sovereign over all that is seen and unseen. But He did take a moment (day) to enjoy the goodness He had created. In fact, creation wasn’t complete without the seventh day of rest; it is woven into the very fabric of creation…into humanity. As with the other nine commandments, rest is designed to form and shape us as people of God…to help us be the men, women, and children we were created to be.
Life has inherent ebbs and flows, highs and lows, and God called us to a life of intentional rhythm. Rest is an essential part of that rhythm, and yet “rest” has become like other four-letter words – something to be avoided because we tend to make a negative association, equating rest to being “lazy.” We enlightened 21st century people with our frenetically busy and over-booked schedules consider slowing down or simplifying anathema, must less actually stopping for a time. No wonder we are harried, stressed, impatient, self-serving, and self-centered – we are never refreshed and refueled. Operating on empty makes us unable to care about, much less love and care for, those around us – and that’s the greatest commandment, by the way.
So, let’s trace back to my original questions of childhood (and since): What exactly does keeping a day holy and sabbath rest mean, and what does it look like? Does it mean a day filled with only holy disciplines and practices? Must it be observed only on Saturday or Sunday? Is keeping sabbath simply a matter of refraining from work? First, let’s take a look at two key words – holy and rest. In Scripture, the term holy means to “consecrate” or “set aside.” Keeping the sabbath holy, then, is a call to consecrate and set aside a space of time as utterly different from all other days. It is time set apart for a specific purpose – and that’s where rest comes in. Holy rest isn’t about a super long nap – although it’s not a bad thing to include when observing the sabbath. Holy rest is about differentiating this time from all other time. It’s not a day to abstain from your profession or various roles so you can run all your errands and do your household/yard work. It’s about embracing and celebrating time as a gift. It’s about seeking refreshment, renewal, and refilling spiritual resources. It’s about significantly slowing your pace – don’t tend the garden; smell the flowers…meditate on their beauty…soak in the sun. Take a pause from everything ordinary to simply be and feel yourself replenish. Be still and know the He is God.
From my perspective as an Anglican priest, Sunday is a day of worship and service for me, and while it is certainly holy time, it isn’t sabbath rest; therefore, I observe sabbath on Monday. Just as each person is unique, so will our sabbath practices be unique. The point is not what you choose to do as much as what you don’t do. Pray about and discover your own way, knowing it may take some trial and error. Don’t be afraid to be creative and resist being productive! Find what restores you and fills you with peace and joy. In the words of the late Eugene Peterson, “Sabbath-keeping shifts our attention from what we are doing for God to what God is doing for us. Our work became subsumed in His.” In finding and committing to a rhythm of sabbath rest, we are strengthened to serve the other six days of the week, to check off our “to do” lists and faithfully fulfill our roles; not in a state of exhaustion, but with joy and spiritual health. My prayer is that each of you will commit, or recommit, to keep your sabbath holy. It will require thought, planning, intentionality, and discipline in the beginning, but the rewards are immeasurable.
The Rev. Cynthia Brust is the Associate Rector of Church of the Apostles, Kansas City. You can read more about her here.