Books on Faith: The Sabbath World, Week Three
As a child growing up in the Midwest, Sunday afternoons seemed to last forever. After a lunch of pot roast with potatoes and carrots, carefully placed in the oven before leaving for Sunday school that morning, we had nothing to do until time to leave for discipleship class at our small Southern Baptist Church. My dad napped while the Dallas Cowboys played whomever on the only television in our home. My mom busied herself with whatever tasks moms did on Sunday afternoons. My brothers struggled to figure out how to play without getting dirty or loud—two things expressly forbidden during those hours.
A burgeoning bookworm, I typically found my solace in tales of Laura and Mary Ingalls sorting through life on the prairie. I remember reading about their Sunday afternoons of quietly playing with cornhusk dolls and thinking times hadn't changed much in those 100 years or so.
Fast forward to today. Our Sunday afternoons are a cacophony of busy-ness and activity. After church, we either eat lunch out with friends or come home to leftovers from the day before. My daughter spends her afternoon watching television or out with friends. My worship leader husband plans his nap but rarely gets to take it before he has to be back at the church for practice with the musicians, before choir practice, before the evening service. Following church we come home exhausted from the frenzy of the day and plot our strategy for the week ahead.
When God commanded the Israelites to "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," I'm not sure He had Sunday afternoons in modern America in mind.
In part three of Judith Shulevitz's book The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, she asks the big question: "What is the Sabbath, anyway?" After exploring the religious, social, legal, cultural, and political institution Sabbath can represent, she ends with this final notion of what sets Sabbath apart: it is a holy day.
Holy days, once meant to open up the heavens for a glimpse of time on a cosmic scale, are now "holidays," meant for skiing trips or preschool parties.
When I read that sentence, something inside me clicked. What are holy days? And why do we need them?
The idea of holy days carries the implicit understanding that some days are not holy, that there is a necessary distinction between what is sacred and what is secular. If there are days set apart as holy, Sabbath days, they must not look the same as the other days.
So how did we get from the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday? And what have we lost along the way?
Shulevitz offers compelling historical information concerning the particulars of this transition, not the least of which is the early Christian church's distrust of Jewish tradition. As the Gentile believers began to outnumber the Jewish followers of Christianity, traditions like Sabbath were replaced with practices disconnected from the Jewish faith.
In fact, the modern concept of busy Sundays is not as far removed from the early church's practice as we might think. Shulevitz explains,
One thing we do know is what Sunday was not. It was not a day of rest. The realities of everyday existence precluded taking the day off.
If Sunday isn't our day of rest, what are we to do about the biblical command to "remember the Sabbath" and scriptural admonitions such as, "Be still and know that I am God"? How do we manage to create holy days, set apart for the sacred, in the midst of life consumed with the secular?
Maybe it's not as hard as we make it. Maybe it's a matter of reclaiming hours or minutes as we can, setting aside the tasks of the day to focus on the Lord. In fact, maybe that's the truth of what Sabbath has always been. The work is never done. But we are invited to set it aside for the moment to dwell in the presence of the Lord, to experience the sacred right in the middle of the secular.
How do you practice Sabbath? What practices identify your Sabbath as a holy day rather than a holiday?
Will you join us on Mondays in July as we consider how we order our days? As we read through The Sabbath World together, we would love to hear from you about what Sabbath means to you, what influences you in your practice of Sabbath-keeping, and if you have noticed an impact Sabbath-keeping has on the hard work of living your life. Leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you are reading and blogging along, drop your link there, too. Next week, Dave Vander Laan leads our discussion on Part Five (People of the Book) and Part Six (Scenes of Instruction). I hope you'll join us!