The Sabbath That Remains

So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest . . . . Hebrews 4:9-11

One of my favorite movie musicals is Fiddler on the Roof. I love Tevye, the pious, wise and comical milkman who has the chutzpah to shake his fist at God when his horse goes lame, yet who can in humble confidence hang his head before God when true catastrophe strikes. The one thing that steadies him through all his ups and downs is his Tradition. As Tevye puts it, “Without our Tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!”

I’m especially moved by the scene of the lighting of the Sabbath candles. The mother gathers the family about the table, and with a veil over her head, and her hands over her eyes, she leads the family in prayer. Dressed in their finest clothes, the thoughts and arguments of the week put away for twenty-four hours, together they welcome the Sabbath. Throughout the village of Anatevka all families, rich and poor, large and small, unite in this act recognizing the holiness of this time.

Those images never fail to bring back memories of Sabbath celebrations when I was a Seventh-day Adventist. We never lit candles, yet the Sabbath’s arrival was distinguished nonetheless by the flaming colors of the Friday sunset and a hushed atmosphere of holy expectation. We were exhorted to “guard the edges of the Sabbath,” making sure our work was done well before the start of the Sabbath, and treasuring the last moments of the sacred time. The Sabbath was marked not merely by an absence of work and of the blare of the television, but also by special meals and special guests, gatherings for prayer and song, and leisurely strolls through the woods or along the seashore admiring the handiwork of the Creator, who left this holy time as a memorial of his work of creation.

Sanctifying time

There is something experienced by Jew and Adventist in the Sabbath that non-Sabbatarians too often miss. And yet there are times when I still experience that same holy hush, when time is sanctified. To sanctify time is to set it apart and devote it to God; it is to see this moment as a place of encounter with the holy. Christians recognize many such times: the Sunday assembly, holy days such as Easter and Christmas, as well as the practice of gathering for prayer at specified times each day, especially morning and evening, praising God through the singing of the psalms.

Christians and Jews can speak of the sanctification of time because, unlike devotees of many other religions, we do not see time as something opposed to God, but as his creation. It was within time that God created, marking it off day by day. It was within time that he redeemed Israel from Egypt, and it is within the mystic time of Pesach that Jews today experience that same deliverance. It was within time that Jesus came as one of us; it is within time that he continues to meet us.

We do not have to wait until “the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more” to be in his presence. But as we gather to hear his word proclaimed, as we gather to praise his name, as we unite around his table, he is with us. These are sacred times, full of awe and mystery and majesty as surely as was that day the shekinah glory led the people of Israel through the sea, or that hour when the earth shook and the temple veil was torn as God’s son hung lifeless on the cross.

Two of the times that most recall to me the Sabbath experience are Evening Prayer and the Easter Vigil. It’s not hard to see why. Both begin with the lighting of candles. They are characterized not by ostentation but by simplicity: psalms, prayers, scripture. You cannot rush them. These liturgies require an offering of this time to God–however long it might take. As the darkness deepens outside, the flickering of a solitary candle marks out this space and time as holy. Like the Quaker meeting, these are liturgies in which the silences are as important as the words. These deep pauses, the simple chants, and the succinct collects allow the worshippers to dissolve into the surrounding darkness, and the word itself to hover like a moth in the candle’s soft glow, perfumed by the rising incense.

But the sanctification of time does not rely upon props such as candles, chant or incense. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Consider times in your life when you’ve experienced that. You may have come together as strangers, but as you became comfortable in one another’s presence, sharing stories of faith, you found yourselves to be in the presence of God. The silences that were awkward in the beginning became rich moments of reflection and grace. Your time together became sanctified.

I could go on with other examples of sanctified time: times of contemplative prayer in the presence of Jesus; silent walks through autumnal beauty; times of intense wrestling with God, like Jacob at the Jabbok River. These times are holy because they are times in which we are truly aware of the presence of God, and we come away thinking, “This is what heaven must be like.”

But the sanctification, or setting apart, of some moments of time leaves many others in the sphere of the commonplace. Christ does not allow us to build tents on the mountaintop, but, after glimpses of glory, he calls us back down to the valley. Yet these mountaintop times are what carry us through our journey; it is there that we, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, can see our ordinary experiences transfigured, and the glory of God illumine the darkness.

The time crunch

We rejoice in these special times; like Peter, we wish that they would never end. And yet what excuses we give as we see them coming! How difficult it is to set aside time to pray, especially when we first attempt it! Even with the best of intentions, time seems to slip through our fingers. I am frightened when I see myself becoming like the father in Harry Chapin’s song, “The Cat’s in the Cradle,” who just can’t seem to find time for his family, and is startled late in life to realize that his son has indeed grown up just like him. And who doesn’t have days like Tevye, who is rushing to finish his deliveries before the Sabbath when his horse goes lame, forcing him to pull his cart by hand–thereby upsetting everyone else’s Sabbath preparation as well!

Sanctified times are so special, so vital (and so hard to come by!) because time itself is finite. To be in time is to confront limits. It means not being able to do everything, and that necessitates making choices. We live in fear that our time will run out before we get everything done that we want to accomplish. As the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth put it, in every area of our lives, in everything that we aspire to do or to become, we eventually come to a wall, a barrier, beyond which we cannot go–the point at which all our requests, all our pleas, are met by a firm, final, and absolute “No.”1

This is what Jesus took upon himself in becoming a man. This is the truly awesome, inconceivable meaning of the Incarnation. Jesus did not just pop into our world for a brief visit. When he took upon himself our nature, he became like us in every way except sin (Hebrews 2:14-16; 4:15). He took our flesh, our weakness. Most important, he took upon himself our time-boundedness.

Think about that for a moment. He whom the heavens could not contain, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” became flesh. Forget about the porcelain Nativity sets you have seen, and try to imagine the gritty reality. A baby lies in a dusty manger, wrapped in ragged strips of cloth. Hungry, he cries, and must be lifted up to nurse at his mother’s breast. He messes his diapers, and they must be changed.

He through whom the world was made, whose word spoke us into existence, allowed himself to be walled in by time. He submitted to all the “nos” that we must. He had to be cared for as an infant. He had to obey his parents as a youth. He could only be in one place, walk only so far, speak to and touch and heal only so many. And then he died. On a cross. The ultimate limit–the ultimate no–literally nailed to one place, one moment in time.

Seeing with eyes of faith

Now, however, we live not in the darkness of Good Friday, but in the brilliant light of the Easter dawn. Time is no longer the enemy we feared, a cold, dark tomb which confines our hopes and our aspirations; it is now the intimate garden within which our risen Lord embraces us in love. We remain finite and circumscribed here and now, but these limits are no threat. Having been accepted freely by Christ, our limits are now graced, are now sanctified; they are instruments through which God can act.

I used to read the Bible and wonder, “Why doesn’t God act like that today?” I was too accustomed to Cecil B. DeMille movies and Harry Anderson paintings. The truth is that God acts in today’s world in the same way he has always acted. He has not changed. I think the problem is that Hollywood has misled us. God’s miracles were never of the Cecil B. DeMille sort, indisputable displays of raw power. They have always been seen as such only by the eye of faith.

God’s approach to humanity has always been the same; rather than trying to overwhelm us with displays of power and glory, he comes in humility and love. He empties himself, as he did in becoming a man. Today, as in ancient Palestine, God uses and blesses simple things, veiling himself in a form that we can approach, and can touch, and can see. Bread, the simplest of foods, becomes the Body of Christ; wine, mere crushed grapes, becomes his Blood.

The Sabbath is like that. It does not appear to be anything particularly grand to the world. The world doesn’t notice either its coming or its going. But the eye of faith sees in this humble maiden a queen or a bride, decked out in splendor. For the Jew and for the Adventist, the Sabbath has the same meaning that the Eucharist has for many Christians. It is “the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.”2 It is the ordinary made extraordinary. It is the sanctification of the secular. It is sacrament.

The gracing of life

Are you frustrated by your limits? Do you wonder, “What can I do? I’m only one person. I can’t go far. I can’t do great deeds. I can’t influence lots of people.” You don’t have to. For the same grace that transforms bread and wine can work through you–your words, your actions, your touch. Your limits are no longer a “No.” God’s grace has made them a “Yes.”

We come to God’s table to fellowship with our Lord, who has called us to himself out of a love without limit, without condition. He has forgiven our sins and made us whole. We are home, here, surrounded by our family. From his table we are called forth, to love, to forgive, to heal. To do justice and to make peace. We don’t have to do it all. We need only do what we can. And God will bless it, and use it, transforming the simple, ordinary experiences of our lives into shining moments of grace in a dark and broken world.

That is evangelization is really all about. It doesn’t require grandiose plans or complicated and costly strategies; it is simply living out, and sharing in small ways, those moments of grace you’ve experienced, those times in your life when you have been touched by God.

And God may surprise you, turning your whole world around, when you take the first small step of faith in obedience to that call.

Consider the story of Abraham, who faithfully followed God out of Ur to the promised land; who believed God’s promise that he would make of him a great nation; who was then asked to do the impossible–to take his son, Isaac, the promise in flesh and blood form, bind him to an altar, and plunge a knife into his breast.

It seemed at that moment that God was taking back his promise. Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, the Bible says. He was 86 when, trying to fulfill the promise on his own, he fooled around with his slave, Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael. He was 99 when God changed his name from Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of many nations”). He was 100 when Isaac was born (and to think that there’s a debate today among ethicists who think it is immoral for a 50-year-old to have children!).

And now, sometime after, that, when Isaac is old enough to talk and talk and argue (and fight back), when Abraham no longer had the will to look to a slave for a solution, God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22:2).

It seemed that everything that God had done in Abraham’s life up to that point had been for nothing other than God’s sadistic pleasure. Yet Abraham trusted God, and God was faithful in the end, and through Isaac, the child of promise, God did bless the world as he had promised he would.

The remaining Sabbath

This is the deepest meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made to be a sign of what God wants to do with us and through us. God wants to take us, in our simplicity and humility, and use us. God wants to sanctify us. God wants us to be places where he meets with humankind. God said this to Israel quite explicitly, “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13).

The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed tradition says that the Sabbath commandment requires that I “allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.”3 If God is to work, we must rest. As Calvin said: “We must be wholly at rest that God may work in us; we must yield our will; we must resign our heart . . . . In short, we must rest from all activities of our own contriving so that, having God working in us, we may repose in him . . . .”4

God will use you. God will bless you. God will work miracles through you. You might not see it as such at the time. You might not see the effect for years–maybe never. But he will. You don’t need to concern yourself with that, however. You need simply to say, Lord, your will be done. And then do, and speak, as he leads you to. Reach out to those who need healing and reconciliation. Reach out to forgive and to love. Do so in the assurance that the God who so sends you says,

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. . . . Because you are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you . . . . (Isaiah 43)

Notes

1Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 38.

2Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951), pp. 60ff.

3Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 103. The Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America; Part One: Book of Confessions, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, 1970), 4.103.

4John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), ii.viii.29, I:396.

4 thoughts on “The Sabbath That Remains

  1. Excellent! Goes very well with my bishop’s recent letter on the Sabbath which among other things called on Catholics to stop shopping on Sunday. (Which has long been a stumbling block for this convert.)

  2. Your comment about time being finite recalls a point C.S. Lewis made (I think in The Problem of Pain or Mere Christianity): we have all kinds of indications that we are not at home in time, that we are made for eternity. These indicators are timeless moments; the surprise of the passage of time (“my how you’ve grown” and “I don’t remember getting older; when did they?”); the limits of our own time, felt as impositions on our nature; the longing for a longer sabbath.

    Yet this does not deny the validity of the “sanctification of time” as practiced by faith communities, for after all we must live in time now, and our world is sacramental. These sanctifications of time tend to point us to our true home in which time is no longer a limit.

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