Today is the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbat, a day of ceasing from all servile labor in which God’s people breathe deep the sweet fragrance of the Torah and exhale on high a new song of praise and thanks to their Creator and Redeemer.
The Sabbath, commanded by God to shatter man’s slavery to unrelenting work, creates a free space in time for joyfully and thankfully receiving the sheer gift of existence itself afresh from the Hand of God. It also creates a space for us to remember the mirabilia Dei, “the wonderful works of God” that have taken place in history as the eternal God again and again broke into time to save humanity and establish with us an everlasting covenant of mercy.
For Christians who celebrate the fulfillment of the Sabbath on Sunday, the 8th and final day of creation, the day the Spirit-breathing Christ rose from death, the Sabbath is especially a day consecrated to liturgical worship and prayer. Liturgy is, you might say, the God-designed manner by which each man and woman enters into the restful Sanctuary that abides at the thrice holy Heart of the life-creating Trinity. On Sabbath we are not just invited to come near to God, but to plunge into Him, to eat and drink of His immortal life and love. Sunday is our weekly foretaste of that entry into the Unthinkable, the Unspeakable, and Holy Mass is where we amble into the veiled threshold of Mystery.
Not a bad reason to plan your Sunday trek to Mass as a day “set apart” for God.
As an aside, regarding the character of Sabbath as a day to be joyously grateful for the gift of existence, I had an insight in February that I’d like to share here. Here’s my journal entry from February 7th (which I won’t indent to keep the italics):
Here’s an an insight it seems that the Lord has given me about the “everything” for which we give thanks – an opening into a certain “mysticism of being” (or maybe an ontological mysticism) that claims within me an irrepressible and moment-by-moment joying gratitude over the surplus of meaning, the superabundant beauty that impregnates the Genesis 1:31 “very good” fact of existence itself, i.e. that even before meaning and goodness and discernable purpose are located by us within in distinct āctūs, “acts” of being (e.g. my health, the birth of a child, a lovely dew-drenched rosebud), meaning and goodness and purpose worthy of laud are already/always found simply and without qualification in that fact of esse, of “to-be” itself, regardless of the particular existential colors being presents in any given moment. Just “to-be,” as a reception of the pure-gratuity of God’s eternal-creating Act, should suffice to vacate all boredom and meaninglessness from every moment. And every moment of to-be that is this received within such a “eucharistic heart” wells up through us, blended with Seraphic hymns, into imperishable eternity. This point is what for me gives such force to Meister Eckhart’s catastrophically simple saying: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” It’s been a revolution within a revolution within a revolution for me.
I recall the day I first read through Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, The Gifts of the Jews. I was bowled over in particular by his insights on the Jewish Sabbath. These insights made me grateful in a new way for this singular gift the Jews bequeathed to the world and to the Church, and it made me more keenly aware of the tragedy of a Christian people who have largely forgotten what a precious pearl they have to offer the world. Here’s the quote that really took me:
No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation). In this study (or Talmud), we have the beginnings of what Nahum Sarna has called ‘the universal duty of continuous self-education,’ Israel being the first human society to so value education and the first to envision it as a universal pursuit – and a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are being paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, considered slaves.
JP2, We ♥ You
One last point, to avoid making this post obscenely long.
Soon to be Pope St. John Paul II wrote a whole letter on the meaning and celebration of Sunday (click here), and it’s well worth reading. It’s theologically and historically rich, and is filled with plenty of excellent practical ideas for keeping the Sabbath “holy.” I’d like to end today with my favorite 2 paragraphs in the document. It’s a tad long, but worth the read.
Imagine a world of 2+ billion Christians carrying this out every 7 days. Now, let’s pledge to move from image to reality…
The Eucharist is an event and programme of true brotherhood. From the Sunday Mass there flows a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life of the faithful, beginning by inspiring the very way in which they live the rest of Sunday. If Sunday is a day of joy, Christians should declare by their actual behaviour that we cannot be happy “on our own”. They look around to find people who may need their help. It may be that in their neighbourhood or among those they know there are sick people, elderly people, children or immigrants who precisely on Sundays feel more keenly their isolation, needs and suffering. It is true that commitment to these people cannot be restricted to occasional Sunday gestures. But presuming a wider sense of commitment, why not make the Lord’s Day a more intense time of sharing, encouraging all the inventiveness of which Christian charity is capable? Inviting to a meal people who are alone, visiting the sick, providing food for needy families, spending a few hours in voluntary work and acts of solidarity: these would certainly be ways of bringing into people’s lives the love of Christ received at the Eucharistic table.
Lived in this way, not only the Sunday Eucharist but the whole of Sunday becomes a great school of charity, justice and peace. The presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his people becomes an undertaking of solidarity, a compelling force for inner renewal, an inspiration to change the structures of sin in which individuals, communities and at times entire peoples are entangled. Far from being an escape, the Christian Sunday is a “prophecy” inscribed on time itself, a prophecy obliging the faithful to follow in the footsteps of the One who came “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and new sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). In the Sunday commemoration of Easter, believers learn from Christ, and remembering his promise: “I leave you peace, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), they become in their turn builders of peace.