So, for the last couple of days I have been thinking about the Sabbath. As many of you will know, that is the name of the Jewish holy day of rest which begins at nightfall on Friday until just after sunset on Saturday. The word sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb Shabbat, meaning to rest from labour, and that takes us back to Genesis 2.
“2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
In the Ten Commandments God commands his people to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. It was a way of life that was, and still is, embedded in Jewish life, culture and faith. Jesus himself taught about it and there are various Sabbath related incidents in the Gospels.
The transition from Sabbath to Sunday is an interesting one. Because the Resurrection, and the new creation that we are in Christ, began on a Sunday, soon the church observed that day instead. Today we still gather to worship on Sundays but the practice of keeping one day of rest, of stopping work, closing shops and businesses, has completely changed in my lifetime. Instead, Sunday has become another day of work for many,of retail, business and leisure opportunities, a major day for sports fixtures and clubs, things on a Sunday undreamed of by a previous generation.
Or perhaps I should say had become, because today and for the foreseeable future many of us will be having an enforced sabbath. We cannot go out to the cinema, to the football match, to wander round a shopping centre. Our lives have been radically changed by Covid-19. It is a horrifying situation, but do you think maybe we are learning from this that we can survive without shopping, working, trading and even, dare I say it, sport, seven days a week? That we can withdraw from ceaseless activity every seven days to rest, to recharge and refocus. To stop the endless round of consumerism and make do with what we have in the house for just one day a week? To spend time together round a table with family sharing a meal instead of rushing out in different directions. To learn that we can face Monday morning so much better because we have had a rest from continual work. That having stepped away from our emails and websites for one day we can actually see with clearer vision and purpose in our work.
Many of you will have seen the reports on how the coronavirus has had a positive effect on our environment. Satellite data from the European Space Agency is showing reduced air pollution in areas hardest hit by the virus. Surely our planet is showing us that, as God ordained, it too needs to rest. It has been trying to get our attention, but this really has brought into focus, on all sorts of levels, that we ignore it’s need for rest at our peril. Of course, as soon as the economy starts again then pollution levels will go back up, but what if we returned to that just six days a week instead of seven?
What if, as Wendell Berry puts it in one of his wonderful sequence of poems about Sabbath, we just sit still for a while?
“I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.”
Perhaps we too will then discover that Sabbath brings a new song, one of hope in our current crisis and a kinder way of living for the whole world. A way that that involves doing as our Creator has asked us to- and does himself-resting on the Sabbath.
“After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.”
~ Wendell Berry from Sabbaths
It is a beautiful piece and you can find the whole poem and the author reading it here: