In Presbyterian circles, when the idea of Sabbath observance comes up, you inevitably come up against the Presbyterian myth of the Sabbath. It goes like this: When I was a child we went to church on Sunday morning, and then again on Sunday evenings, and the rest of the day you had to rest. You could read a book on Sunday afternoon, but that was about it. No playing sports. No running around in the house. There was certainly no cutting the grass, and no working in the garden. We wouldn’t have dreamed of going shopping on Sunday – and even have if we wanted to pick up a few things for dinner, the store would be closed. Things sure have changed, haven’t they?
When we think about our Sabbath myth, we have to ask what it means for us. And it seems to me that there are at least two ways to look at it. On the one hand, this Sabbath myth points to a religious practice that we are glad to be done with. In this sense our Sabbath myth points to an time when we were a bunch of legalists, a people that didn’t know what it meant to attend to Spirit rather than the letter of the law. From this point of view, the fact that all those old rules have fallen to the wayside will be seen as good news. Thank goodness, we might say, those days of rigid legalism, of stoic Presbyterianism, have come to an end.
But in our contemporary context it seems that our Sabbath mythology might also function in quite a different way as well. Perhaps our Presbyterian Sabbath narrative serves also as a kind of nostalgic wishing after something lost. Continue reading
The preacher lives a Monday Sabbath
as the world rushes to the quotidian;
the city-bus groan, office politics,
classroom chaos, breakfast to go.
Resist the voice that insists on
Refuse the myth of indispensability,
lie that dies slowly,
deserving a quick burial,
Roll from bed into a day rife with
possibilities neither created nor
imagined – only to be received.
Pages of non-fiction delight and enliven –
Pastoureau’s The Colour of our Memories.
Tomato seedlings cry for planting, for
fresh air, for freedom to extend roots.
The camera begs to be taken up to capture
and be questioned by a living world.
Only see and hear and touch and receive.
The preacher lives a Monday Sabbath,
and suddenly knows whereof he speaks.
I’m working on a short teaching series I’ll be leading this fall – it’s on the subject of Sabbath. I was reading in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s beautiful book The Sabbath: It’s meaning for modern man and came across this quotation, which fits nicely both with what Jesus has to say and with the broad message that I would hope to convey. Heschel highlights Aristotle’s view that “we need relaxation, because we cannot work continually. Relaxation, then is not an end.”
But Heschel turns this on its head when he replies:
To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is the “end of the creation of heaven and earth.”
The Sabbath is not for the sake of weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.