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Searching for Sabbath

sabbathLast Sunday I went to the mall.  Now-a-days we don’t really think anything of it; of course the malls will be open.  However, I remember when this wasn’t the case.  I also remember when this changed.  I remember people speaking of how this was the worst thing that could possibly befall any community.  At issue in these conversations was an understanding of what it meant to observe the Sabbath.  The argument held that working or shopping on Sundays negated the command to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  If you were working at the GAP then you obviously couldn’t be at church on Sunday mornings.  This was then extended to all areas of commercial or secular life.  Breaking the Sabbath was seen as anything that kept one away from going to church.  Shopping, football games, hockey practices, cooking, all were met with a note of righteous distain.

This may sound passé, but the attitude still exists.  How many of us have heard remarks suggesting that the church would be filled with young families if only there wasn’t soccer practices on Sunday mornings?  Being kept away from pew sitting, for whatever the reason, is to simply break of the fourth commandment.  Thus, to fully observe the Sabbath one must refrain from all non-church related activity.  The answer is quite plain and simple.

Or is it?  Is that all that the Sabbath is, the demand to go to church?  What is more, if church attendance is part of our regular life, are we actually entering into the state of meditative rest if we are simply doing that which we always do?  How this is a rest from the routine of life, if church attendance is part of that routine?  In this, the biblical call to step outside the parameters of that which defines our regular activity, for the purpose of communion with our Lord, remains forever illusive.

The complexity of observing the Sabbath as it relates to our Christian lives can clearly be seen when we view this from the priest’s perspective.  If we happen to view observance of the Sabbath as the day in which one ‘goes to church’, then every single minister, priest or pastor has it made – at least as it pertains to this command.  Yet one could argue that spending yet another day in pastoral leadership doesn’t hold the sense of spiritual restfulness implicit in Sabbath observance.  So then are we saying that for ministers and preachers, observing the Sabbath involves is a reversal of what it is for everyone else? For clergy is observing the Sabbath not about going to church, but actually staying away from it?

Of course, if all the malls are closed, where would we go?

Part of the problem in how we understand Sabbath observance is that view it locationally.  We tend to view our observance of the Sabbath in terms of where we go, or where we do not go.  Viewing Sabbath observance in this way limits us from discovering God’s dynamic presence in ways beyond our current notions and ideas.  Our observance of Sabbath is routine and repetitive, thus, so too our relationship with God becomes that which is exercised without thought or meditation.  Faith is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Instead of seeing Sabbath observance locationally, we need to see it relationally.   God’s own observance of a day of rest did not involve going to a specific location.  The divine act of Sabbath observance in Genesis 2, and the very model of our own observance of the day of rest, was about a relational dynamic between creator and creation. It was a day in which God enjoyed that which He had created; and in this, the creation was called to enjoy the presence of the creator.

See, the power of Sabbath lies in the fact that it remains undefined.  As soon as we attempt to put some structure to it, then it ceases to be Sabbath.  Defining our observance of the Sabbath by ‘not doing work’ or ‘going to church’ doesn’t really fulfill the God’s call for each of these things can be done in faithlessness and with a lack of divine commitment. Sabbath observance cannot be defined by what we do or what we chose not to do; rather it exits in the act by which we remain recklessly open before God.  We place ourselves in unhindered worship for the sole purpose of responding to the movement of God in our lives, or in the lives of others.  Our desire for Sabbath observance must be the enjoyment of God.  Observing the Sabbath, then, involves the cultivation of a space by which one is open to the presence and working of God apart from that which is regular, routine, or expected.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t care if you go shopping on Sunday, or miss church in order to catch the big game?  Hardly.  However pretending that merely going to church amounts to a full observance of the Sabbath does little to move us closer to an enjoyment of our creator.  Rather, we must find and cultivate those places by which we enter that uncomfortable place of surrender; a place where we lay aside all manners of control and expectation, and allow God to work mightily amidst us.  Ultimately our walk of faith, and our relationship with our Lord, is only strengthened insofar as we embraces the deep dynamic of God given Sabbath.

May God bless that time, wherever it may be found.

How do you define Sabbath?  What are the ways that you enter into the dynamic of Sabbath observance?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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5 Responses to Searching for Sabbath

  1. This was a bit of an intellectual, but interesting read. For me, I have to go back to the reason as to why the Sabbath was created. At times, for me, it actually means not going to church, but not to catch up on all my jobs either. I really enjoyed Sarah Connely’s workshop a couple of years ago on Sabbath.

  2. For me it’s a mixture of ritual and rest, and attentiveness to gift and gratitude, all of which are formed by The Holy.

  3. I think we lost something when the seventh day, which was the original Sabbath, was merged with the Lord’s Day (which appears to have roots in the 4th century but really flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries). This corrupted the nature of both the day of rest and the day of celebration of the resurrection (marked with ritual worship). I agree that it’s not about location, which, to me, includes location in time (i.e. day of the week–focussing on Sunday seems very unbiblical and more an historical anomaly) but about the relational piece mentioned. I like Kyle’s summation of the creator enjoying the creation and vice versa. But, good luck inviting people to observe a day of rest and a day of celebration in the same week! 🙂

  4. For a great read on the theology of Sabbath I recommend The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Kyle, he picks up your point about location and says rather than trying to build in SPACE, Sabbath is about the architecture of TIME.

    I agree with Brad. We lost quite a bit in the “gentilization” of the church. The time is long overdue for followers of Jesus to reclaim their full biblical (Hebrew) heritage.
    I agree about the unlikelihood of returning to one day EACH for Sabbath and Resurrection celebration, But it wasn’t that long ago that we had what was called a “weekend” (technically the last and first days) when many people had 2 days without occupational work and were free to observe both! I blame industrialized consumerism for the loss, and so I suspect that going to the mall will exactly exacerbate the loss.

    The Hebrew word comes from the root which simply means stopping or cessation. It is tempting for industrialized society to think of Sabbath as resting in order to make the next work-week even more productive. But the Creators Time of Rest into which we are invited, first of all celebrates the completeness of creation. Of course most of us are so tired that it ends up serving as a utilitarian preparation for more work. But I think such a reduction misses the powerful spiritual purpose and point of it.

    I accept that the “Sabbath principle” is greater than a legalistic observance of it . But I am still a bit nervous about the tendency to say: “well, just pick a day, any day”. If my friend plans to meet me at the coffee shop every Saturday but I go there every Tuesday instead, I am likely to miss (as Kyle says) a bit of the relationship.

    A few years ago I did a research paper on Sabbath as Sacrament (an opportunity to encounter the sacred in our time/space realm). It is available here:

  5. Kyle Norman

    Wow Georgia! I have never had anyone call my writing ‘intellectual’ before? That’s awesome! Interestingly, this post started as a reflection called ‘What being a magician taught me about observing the Sabbath.” As I worked and edited that piece so that it work for this site, I found that all the references to my magic club kept getting deleted, as I reflected about the dynamic of opening stores on Sunday’s.

    Glad to see that it sparked some discussion! Keep it up.

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