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Reclaiming wisdom of the Sabbath

For many Christians, Sabbath observance seems odd or optional – a matter of personal spirituality or something we do, somehow, on Sunday rather than Saturday. Might there be a way to reclaim the wisdom of the Sabbath – in community?

The Sabbath (the seventh day) means to rest in God, or, better, to rest with God in the beauty of Creation, which means to rest both prayerfully and playfully.

The Hebrew Bible includes many references to this Sabbath, this slow time – as commandment, as commemoration of divine rest and release from slavery – freedom for life together (vigilance with regard to all manner of enslavement – addiction to work, accumulation of wealth, exploitation of workers, indifference to the hardship of others, and so on).

No wonder wise rabbis and religious leaders, ancient and contemporary, worry over proper observance of the Sabbath. Slow time matters – lest we succumb to frantic self-importance, weighed down by greed or guilt.

In the New Testament and according to church traditions, Sunday (symbolically the eighth day – day of resurrection) means to start again, to give thanks (Eucharist) for new life and recreation in Christ …

The Christian challenge is to hold these two symbols, “slow time” and “start again”, to acknowledge promises in the spirit of Torah and Gospel. A certain imaginative space is required.

In a way, Sunday worship includes Sabbath observance, affirms the commandment to rest and remember, to set free. Broadly speaking, this is Catholic teaching – Sabbath-Sunday as double movement of “slow time” and “start again”.

Still, there are good reasons to maintain Saturdays and Sundays as distinct holy days (it can be burdensome to roll so much into Sunday).

The Orthodox churches, for example, revere the seventh day in the spirit of Holy Saturday, the Great Sabbath when Christ “rested” in the tomb – as occasion for prayers in loving memory of departed souls (may they rest in peace).

Catholic and Orthodox communities have long held masses on Saturdays and Sundays.

At South Sydney Uniting Church, our pattern of weekly activities maintains some distinctions between the seventh and eighth days.

Our Saturday activities, in general, are sabbatical – resting in the beauty of Creation, we enjoy writing poems, painting and drawing, gardening and praying together (pastoral care).

As a liturgical community we might continue to reflect on this weekly pattern – wary of a Protestant tendency to privatise or psychologise the Sabbath.

The seventh day is a day of rest, nourishment, even comforting silence – “slow time”. The eighth day is a time to give thanks – a day of renewal and encouragement – “start again”.

Contrary to Puritan teaching (the Westminster Confession forbids recreational activities on the “Sabbath”), we pray and play. Saturday and Sunday worship are joyful occasions.

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