Re-post from April, 2014. Just because it was a favorite to write.
Today is the Jewish Sabbath — in Hebrew, Shabbat — a day of ceasing from all servile labor. Today God’s people inhale the sweet fragrance of Torah and exhale a new song of praise and thanks to the Creator, who called all things from non-existence into being; and to the Redeemer, who “brought Israel out from the midst, for his love endures for ever” (Psalm 136:11).
The Sabbath is first commanded by God, in memory of creation’s seventh day, to unfetter sinful man from his idolatrous enslavement to work that he might worship the Creator. It opens a free space in time to joyfully receive the sheer gift of existence itself afresh from the Hand of God and offer it back to Him in thanksgiving. Sabbath observance also creates a sacred 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, breaks into time to save mankind and establish an everlasting covenant of mercy.
For Christians who celebrate the fulfillment of the Sabbath on Sunday — the eighth and final day of creation when the Spirit-breathing Christ rose from death — it is a day consecrated to liturgical worship and prayer. The Liturgy, by which Christ structures time and space, opens to each man and woman the gates of entry into the Sanctuary of Paradise, the eternal Sabbath that ever abides in the Heart of Christ (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). On Sabbath we are not just invited to come near to God, but to plunge (baptizein!) into Him, to eat and drink His Flesh and Blood and so share even now in the wedding banquet of the Bridegroom and the Bride (cf. Matthew 22:1-14). Sunday is our weekly foray into the Unthinkable, our raid on the Unspeakable. Holy Mass is where God runs to embrace us and lead us into the nuptial chamber of His Son’s Mysteries, only then to at-once send us out to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13) — the “treasure of the church” — to the Supper of the Lamb.
Not a bad reason to plan into your Sunday the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the heart of your day “set apart” for God.
An aside. Regarding the character of Sabbath as a day to be joyously grateful for the gift of existence, I had an insight recently that I’d like to share here. Here’s my journal entry from February 7, 2014:
I was praying this preface to the Sanctus in the “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” today, and it overwhelmed me with gratitude:
It is meet and right to sing of Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. Thou it was who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven and hadst endowed us with ‘Thy Kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks to Thee, and to Thine only-begotten Son and to Thy Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know and of which we know not, whether manifest or unseen.
Such language leaves me breathless, overwhelmed with a terrible sense of unworthiness “for all things,” that resolves into a Mass text: laudámus te, benedícimus te, adorámus te, glorificámus te; “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you.” Hound of Heaven comes to mind, the stanza where God says:
And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Here’s an an insight it seems that the Lord has given me about the “all things” for which we give thanks in that Orthodox prayer. It was for me an opening into a certain — can I call it? — “mysticism of being” (or maybe an “ontological mysticism”) that has claimed within me an irrepressible and moment-by-moment joying gratitude over … the “surplus of meaning,” the superabundant beauty that impregnates Genesis 1:31’s καλά λίαν, “very good.” I am. The raw fact of existence itself, that I even exist at all, is utterly astounding. When I was a boy, I would lay in bed at night and think, with wonder and not despair, “Why do I exist? Why am I me?” Heidegger taught me, Why something rather than nothing. I break into thanks even before I see particular values, meanings, goodnesses or discernible purposes embedded within the āctūs, “act” of being. So, before I ever see any particular goods like my health, the birth of our children, a lovely dew-drenched rosebud, the Passion of Jesus … already meaning, goodness and purpose — wholly worthy of praise — are found. Simply and without qualification, there in that very fact of esse, “being” itself, is cause for praise:
Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
Laudate eum, omnes populi
O praise the Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people. — Psalm 117
Even if there is more, who needs more? “If only for the fact that I am, O Lord, I need nothing more to voice praise!” Regardless of particular existential colors that life presents in any given moment, just “to-be” suffices to evacuate all boredom and meaninglessness from every moment. I am the reception of pure-gratuity, of God’s self-diffusing, creating Act. I earned nothing of it as I was called into being. Every moment of my be-ing must be received by a “eucharistic heart.” Sursum corda! Lift heartfelt thanks on high! It is right and just. Better: simply the return of love. “…et de plenitudine eius nos omnes accepimus et gratiam pro gratia,” John 1:16. Worship, liturgy is nothing other than creation reflecting back the glory shone, mixing our voices with the ceaseless Seraphic hymns — holy! holy! holy! May I be caught up into imperishable eternity, deathless liturgy. Liturgy is Christ, He who is the Creator-creature in an immortal act of eucharist. The Lord said Eucharistēsas, Luke 22:19, once in old Jerusalem, but forever now for us in New Jerusalem. @ Divine Liturgy Christ utters this twice to the Father: for his eternal generation, genitum non factum, “begotten not made;” and on behalf of ex nihilo, “out of nothing” creation which he took on ex Maria Virgine, “of the Virgin Mary” when he became flesh. This, for me, breaks open Meister Eckhart’s devastatingly simple saying: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”
It’s become in me a revolution within a revolution within a revolution; an eternal return to the first moment of Genesis 1:3 — fiat lux, “let there be light…”
How appropriate it was a Jewish professor of Talmud at the University of Hartford who first introduced me to this thought: “How can you young people be bored, when all around you is a world that didn’t have to exist at all, but does? ‘Something rather than nothing.’ Living at the threshold of G-d speaking the world into life – that’s enough to get you stuck on ‘wow’ for a thousand years! Or get stuck with Jeremiah [1:6] stuttering, ’ă·ḏō·nāy ’ă·hāh!”
At every moment, in every breath, to re-receive the primordial gift I was given. The foundation of every other gift: my existence. The self-subsistent Eternal, who could in an instant annihilate the entire cosmos with a word, sustains me in being at every moment and has pledged me, in his unfathomable mercy, immortal existence in a new creation. This first creation would have been enough, O Lord.
How lovely now to me are these words of Bl. John Paul II: “Our existence is already a gift, the first gift of the Creator to the creature.”
I recall reading Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, The Gifts of the Jews, and being deeply moved by his insights on the Jewish Sabbath. It made me more keenly aware of the tragedy that Christians have largely abandoned this “pearl of great price” they have to offer the world. Listen to what Cahill says:
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
This post has become obscenely long.
Did you know? John Paul II wrote a whole letter on the meaning and celebration of Sunday (click here). It’s a mini-catechism on Sunday and is well worth reading. And it’s filled with many practical ideas for keeping the Sabbath “holy.” I’d like to end today with my favorite two paragraphs. It’s a tad long, but, I believe, worth your time. Imagine the seismic impact of 2+ billion Christians living this out every seven days. Pledge to take just one small step to move from imagination 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 behavior 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 neighborhood 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.