June 2, 2024

The Sabbath

The Sabbath

2nd June, First Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Deut. 5. 12-15; 2 Cor. 4. 5-12; Mk. 2. 13-3.6
Theme: The Sabbath

At this time, we return to what the church calls ‘ordinary time’ in the calendar of our liturgical year. It is a time, when we are not preparing for the great feasts of Easter or Christmas and it allows us to focus on the earthly ministry of Jesus as it is narrated in the gospels. We will primarily be reading St Mark’s gospel up to Advent (with a couple of weeks from St John to emphasize certain aspects of creation).

Today our readings invite us to reflect on the meaning of the Sabbath, the Jewish feast of observing the seventh day of each week, as an important part of the weekly cycle of the believers. There are three dimensions to this weekly rhythm that are important for us to reflect on: rest, remembrance and identity. Let us consider each in turn as they are presented to us in our readings for today.

The first element of rest is set within the context of the labour of God in the creation. For six days God creates the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day, he rested as we have it in the book of Genesis 2. 1-4a. This day is called holy by the Lord and later in the Old Testament it will become a sign of the observance of the covenant to mark the Sabbath (Ex. 31. 12-17). There is a twofold significance for us of this notion of rest on the Sabbath. First, is the admonition that one day a week should be different from the days of labour. Our days of labour are not simply meant to be days of busyness as we run around frenetically doing things, as we have it in our first reading from Deuteronomy today. The days of labour are meant to mirror, to participate even, in the very creative work of God. Our labour is therefore a dimension of human life that has a divine significance. This is why the tradition of calling various professions ‘vocations’ grew up. But in reality, all of our labour should be lived as a vocation because through it, we are called to participate in the creative work of God. As Karl Marx intuited in the nineteenth century, and perhaps unsurprisingly given his Jewish background, labour is meant to be fulfilling, and it is a sad reflection on our society when often, for many people, rather than fulfilling, labour can be the opposite. It can be dehumanizing. As our Lent group studied this year, the tragic reality of human slavery and trafficking is a disturbing reminder to us that labour can be deformed for diabolical purposes rather that used for divine ones. This is why in our reading from Deuteronomy slaves are also to be allowed to rest as a reminder that the Israelites were also slaves in Egypt and that it was the mighty hand of the Lord which liberated them from this deformed way of life in slavery.

This is made clear by the second point of significance of the notion of rest on the Sabbath, namely, that we rest because it allows us to remember that it is God who is our creator and that we do not create ourselves through our own labour. Even though our labour is meant to be a means of participating in God’s creative work it is not to be conceived of as separate from the work of the Lord. All our labour is to find its meaning as a participation in the creative and salvific work of God. When this is the case, we realize that though we are to ‘put our backs into it’, so to speak, the work of creation is ultimately in the hands of God, the creator of heaven and earth. This is why Jesus can heal on the Sabbath because the divine purpose of the Sabbath is to recreate us, and healing a man with a withered hand is part and parcel of this work of new creation by God. Moreover, remembering the creative work of God makes it clear to us that we too are part of this creative work of God. We do not create ourselves, but are ultimately dependent upon God for our very existence.

Realizing this can come as quite a shock. The French existentialist thinkers of the twentieth century, such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, gave a powerful voice to this shock of existence in their writings, though they did not view this in theological terms. Rather they often simply spoke of the ‘nausea’ that we experience when we come to awareness of our own nothingness and mortality. Wonderful literature, if a little overly pessimistic at times due to its inability to find the other shore upon which we ultimately find rest.

And, if rest and remembrance are central notions of the celebration of the Sabbath, no less important is that commemorating the Sabbath is part and parcel of how the religious community is meant to guard its own distinctive identity. For the Jewish people, the celebration of the Sabbath became a way of commemorating the giving of the law on Sinai and so as a way of marking the covenant made between God and God’s people. The unique identity of the Jewish people, as the chosen people of God, was to be celebrated in the observing of the Sabbath. This was the day of the week when the Jewish people would remove themselves from the labours of the society within which they found themselves, to celebrate their election by God as the chosen people.

This aspect of an ‘identity marker’ also plays an important role for us Christians too. I don’t know whether you have this experience too, but the simple fact of going to church each Sunday marks you out as distinctive. When others do their shopping, play sport or do whatever they do, Christians are called to use their free time for God. I can remember listening to the stories of Welsh miners how on Sundays they would be in chapel three times a day, using most of their leisure time for worship, bible study and Christian fellowship. Even in the harsh and difficult conditions of the Welsh mining villages, it was this collective celebration of their Christian faith which gave such a strong identity to the Welsh minors. So many of the wonderful Welsh choirs originate from this experience as they sang the praises of the Lord.

We may not be in the Welsh mines, but nevertheless, our weekly rhythm of coming to church should mark us out as different from society. Different, not in a superior or arrogant way, but rather different in the sense that we realize from where we have come and to where we are going. The distinctiveness of religious identity is thus a difference of mission. It speaks of the creative and saving power of God amongst us who calls us to remember who we are on this Sabbath day of rest.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.