An old invitation for a new day
Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. To the extent that we hear the word at all anymore, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath rest may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.
Worse, many people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On the woman’s first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day.
Hopefully, stories like these are becoming a thing of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week-end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church, we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.
When I was a teenager, I remember my grandmother saying to me, “Carol, pretty soon you’re going to have to stop burning the candle at both ends.” Forty years later, I’m finally figuring out what she meant. Human beings—or any of God’s creatures for that matter—are not designed to be constantly “on.” We need time that is set aside for rest, reflection, and communion with others, with nature, and with God.
What a coincidence: God has designed just such a time, and it’s called Sabbath. Never mind that we’ve abused it or ignored it or misunderstood it in the past. The invitation still stands, and we desperately need to accept it—as individuals, as Christian communities, and as a culture.
More than just time management
Many of us are drawn to the idea of Sabbath because we’re exhausted and we have a sense that “something’s gotta give.” This is valid, and we would be wise to listen when our heart tries so hard to get our attention. Still, it’s important to be clear: celebrating Sabbath is more than a self-help strategy. And even though people often report that making room for Sabbath has helped their time-management skills, it’s about a great deal more than time management.
What if we were to consider the Sabbath as an invitation?
First, it’s an invitation to rest, worship, and delight. Imagine a “sphere” of space and time that’s been set aside especially for communing with God, each other, and the rest of creation. Maybe this is why I prefer to talk about “celebrating” the Sabbath rather than “observing” it. Sabbath is much more like a party in a beautiful place with people we love than it is a list of obligations. Maybe this is also why the Sabbath is greeted like a bride in Jewish tradition. When “she” is with us, it’s a time of great joy and celebration—a time to savor each other’s company and give thanks for the beauty of life.
Second, the invitation is from God. A friend of mine who is an Episcopalian compares it to being invited to tea by the Archbishop of Canterbury. When something like this happens, you are expected to find room in your calendar! Her analogy always reminds me of what an honor it is to receive this perpetual invitation from God. After all, how incredible is it that the Creator of the Universe wants to hang out with us? How ridiculous it is that we so often say “no”!
Sabbath in the Bible
It’s helpful to understand the Sabbath as an invitation from God, but it’s also important to understand that it is, in many ways, a “command performance.” There are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible, and in both of them, the command to honor the Sabbath takes up more space than most of the other commandments combined.
When we compare the two versions we realize that each gives a different rationale for celebrating the Sabbath. In Exodus 20:11, we’re told to honor the Sabbath in imitation of God: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all this is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (NRSV). This version is an obvious echo of the creation story in Genesis 2:1-3.
The other version of the Ten Commandments gives a different reason for keeping the Sabbath holy. Deuteronomy 5:15 says: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (NRSV).
What does the memory of servitude have to do with Sabbath-keeping? I think the easiest way to shed light on this is to talk about what the Bible has to say about “good work” versus “bad work.”
We tend to forget that, in the Bible, work is God’s idea. Adam and Eve have jobs to do in Genesis 2, after all. It’s only after sin enters the picture in Genesis 3 that work becomes what the old translations call “toil.” So, there is such a thing as good work and bad—or distorted—work. And one of the ways good work is most often distorted is when there are no limits placed upon it. That’s one of the ways work becomes slavery. The Hebrew word shabbat literally means cease. Cease working!
Are you beginning to understand what slavery has to do with Sabbath-keeping? No one would have had to explain this connection to the ex-slaves who first received the Ten Commandments. They knew all about work with no limits. When Moses reminds them to remember that they were once slaves, it’s his way of saying, “Look, you can either accept the gift of Sabbath or you can go back to being slaves.” Part of what freedom means is accepting this God-given limit.
One of the hardest things for us to get our minds around as Christians is that there can be too much of a good thing even where good works are concerned. No one will dispute that earning a living, preparing meals, taking kids to their sporting events, preaching sermons, or volunteering at the soup kitchen aren’t good—and important—things to do. Yet, even good things need limits. If our lives are so crammed full of good deeds that there is no room left for Sabbath, then something is seriously wrong. The choice is as stark as it was in Deuteronomy’s day: we can either accept the gift of Sabbath or submit to a very real kind of servitude.
Finding ways to accept God’s gift of Sabbath rest
If the first challenge is to realize the importance of accepting God’s Sabbath gift, then the second is figuring out what such acceptance might look like. Here are some questions that often come up when people begin to explore the possibility of “seeking Sabbath.”
- Do I have to designate an entire day as my Sabbath? If so, which one?
The short answer is “no,” but designating a specific time and protecting it is crucial. Jews celebrate Sabbath on the seventh day—from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The early Jewish Christians continued to do this but also celebrated Sunday—the first day of the week—in honor of Jesus’s resurrection. When the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century, he merged the two and Sunday became the “Sabbath Day” for Christians. Unfortunately, over time Christians have tended to accentuate the negative (legalistic) aspects while simultaneously eliminating the positive (celebratory) aspects of Sabbath-keeping.
- How do I celebrate Sabbath without becoming legalistic?
Jesus reminded those who criticized him for “breaking” the Sabbath that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:27; Luke 6:5). It’s helpful to remember that Sabbath says “yes” more than it says “no.”
- Can I celebrate Sabbath by myself?
Of course, but part of Sabbath’s blessing is its invitation to community. Some Christians “get started” on Sabbath by covenanting with a small group of other Sabbath seekers. This not only provides an element of fellowship but also helps with accountability.
- Won’t people think I’m weird?
Well, they might, but you have to decide if it’s worth it. And while there’s no need to be secretive about your Sabbath celebration, there’s no reason you have to be “showy” about it either.
Books about keeping the Sabbath
There are many good resources on the subject of Sabbath celebration in a Christian context. Among them are:
- Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). This book does a particularly good job of teasing out Sabbath’s broader implications for economics, education, and the environment.
- Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989). In Dawn’s signature, accessible style, this book focuses on “ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.”
- Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of NOW by Walter Brueggemann (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014). In his classic style, Brueggemann helps readers understand just how countercultural Sabbath is. He describes Sabbath as resistance to anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking.
- Sabbath Keeping by Donna Schaper (Boston: Cowley, 1999). This is a playful and practical book that sprinkles poems and prayers among thoughtful reflections.
- Hiding in Plain Sight: Sabbath Blessings by Molly Wolf (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1998). This collection of essays looks for God “in the dailiness of things.”
- Celebrating Sabbath: Accepting God’s Gift of Rest and Delight by Carol M. Bechtel (Lousiville: Horizons Bible Study, 2022). This resource includes nine Bible studies on passages related to Sabbath. A DVD is also available with introductions to each lesson by the author (including ten “mini-Sabbaths” with the harp) and some brief orders of worship for Christians seeking to celebrate Sabbath.
The classic Jewish resource—used with enthusiasm by many Christians as well—is:
- The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel (Harper Collins, 1951/1979).
All of this simply means that there are wonderful resources out there from which to draw, and that are available for those who want to learn more. Reading even one of them could be the first step to discovering Sabbath as a regular and joyful rhythm in your life.
How to keep the Sabbath holy
Having said this, there is no substitute for simply trying some things that will help you discover how to keep the Sabbath holy for YOU. At the end of the day, it’s not enough just to think about Sabbath. As Henri Nouwen once observed, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living but live your way into a new kind of thinking.”1
Are there some simple things you can do to get started?
Yes—many people begin with “baby steps.” Try not checking your email and/or Facebook for your designated Sabbath time. Make space for a simple, shared meal. Light a candle. Say a prayer. Sing a hymn. Take a walk.
It may take a while for you to discover how to keep the Sabbath holy for you, so don’t get discouraged if some things work better than others. After all, you are “living your way into a new way of thinking.” But at the end of the day, you may discover that Sabbath is something you can’t imagine living without. It’s a gift, after all—an invitation you wouldn’t dream of refusing. It’s an old invitation for a new day that will draw you into deeper relationship with God, others, yourself, and all creation.
Why not say yes? Can you afford to say no?
From Henri J. M. Nouwen’s introduction to the 1980 edition of The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life by Parker J. Palmer (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 1993), ix.
This article is adapted from Carol M. Bechtel’s article “Sabbath: An Old Invitation for a New Day,” written for Horizons, the magazine for Presbyterian Women. Additional insights and suggestions for Sabbath are available in the PW/Horizons Bible study, Celebrating Sabbath: Accepting God’s Gift of Rest and Delight, by Carol M. Bechtel.
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Carol M. Bechtel
Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel is professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She is ordained in the Reformed Church in America and serves as a General Synod professor of theology. She also serves as the executive director of the American Waldensian Society. Dr. Bechtel is well-published and preaches and teaches widely. Find more of her work at www.carolmbechtel.com.