“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident
in your towns.” Exodus 20:8–10 (Big Ten Series)
In Hebrew tradition, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and goes until sundown on Saturday — a full day where no work is to be done. Even when the Israelites were eating manna in the wilderness, they would gather enough on Friday mourning to feed them the next day as well, because gathering more manna would be considered work.. At one point we are told that Jesus traveled a “sabbath days journey” which amounted to a little over a half a mile. Walking more than that on the sabbath constituted work. It was a day set aside to be still, to rest from labor, and to remember that people are more than their labor.
For early Christians the sabbath day remained the same — that is to say, Friday evening through Saturday. It wasn’t until 321CE that Emperor Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of civil rest in the Roman Empire. In 364 CE the Council of Laodicea made Sunday the official sabbath of the Christian Church, shifting the focus from a day of rest to resurrection day, and threatening excommunication for any Christians who observed the Jewish Sabbath day. It wasn’t long before “keeping the sabbath” became synonymous with attendance at a worship service.
For a lot of us, keeping the sabbath day holy amounts to our hour or so on Sunday morning that we attend “church.” It has become about fulfilling an obligation — which, I think, first century Hebrews would consider work.
In our hustle and bustle world it is near impossible to set aside an entire day to do no work. I used to feel bad about that. I used to think that not keeping a specific sabbath day was a big sin, that I should pick a day and not answer the phone or look at email or do anything related to my vocation whatsoever. I’ve tried that… and I discovered that my sabbath experiences wound up as fodder for sermons — which made them work. It was a disaster.
Thankfully Jesus has a different perspective on sabbath: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” The point of the sabbath is not a specific day necessarily but rather the need to remember that, while we must work to survive, life is about more than work. The sabbath is a remembrance that we are made in the image of God, so we should follow in the pattern of God. God rested from creating on the seventh day, so we rest from our creating once in a while and remember that we are not defined solely by our toil. We are more than what we can produce or what is in our bank accounts.
If you are able to set aside a day for sabbath rest, I applaud you. Do your level best to never lose that. It is a gift. If you are like me and find setting a specific sabbath becomes more of a chore than a blessing, train yourself to take sabbath moments or hours.
Create moments throughout your day to remember your work does not define you. Set aside a single hour where you shut off your phone and don’t look at your computer; step outside and breath some fresh air. There is an old saying that I think we can adapt as an adage about sabbath. All work and no sabbath makes for a restless life. Take the day. Take the hour. Take the moment to sit back and remember that you are more. You are more than an employee. More than a mom. More than a dad. More than a spouse or domestic engineer. You are more.