Technically speaking, Sabbath, which comes from the Hebrew word "Shabbat" (or "Shabbos") means in its most simplest form "to cease." Within Jewish custom, Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday (following the order in Genesis, which places the beginning of days and sundown and not at sunrise). Two candles are lighted symbolizing the setting apart of this day as a holy day, the most holy day, of the week. A special meal is eaten often times with extended family or friends or even new acquaintances in attendance. Songs are sung, specific prayers are offered. Dinner is long and carries late into the evening. Synagogues conduct services on Friday evening and on Saturday morning. Saturday includes corporate worship and fun with friends and family People are invited to nap/rest and to spend time learning the Torah. Couples are encouraged to
Shabbat is a gift from God. In Jewish poetry, it is described to as a bride or a queen. It is a joyous time during which the cares and stresses of the rest of the week can be set aside in order to enter into a mystical time of abundance, laughter, joy - shalom. Shabbat is the living out of shalom (peace, wholeness), which has yet to be fully realized on earth. It is a taste of what God wants for the world.
Very early in Christian history, as Christian communities increasingly comprised Gentile members instead of Jewish members, the sect moved from celebrating Shabbat to celebrating the Lord's Day. For a short while, many communities celebrated both days. However, with the Hellenization of Christianity there came a de-Judaising of our practices and customs. It is my opinion that this began with the best intentions - at least I hope that this is so. Communities were faced with this simple question: Do people who are not Jewish and who will never live in Israel need to convert to Judaism in order to belong to a Christian community - to follow Christ? Early Christian communities were divided on this issue. Some maintained that Christians did need to convert to Judaism, but others did not. Paul, who was born a Jew, believed that the expectation of conversion placed an undue burden on people who were not and would never be culturally Jewish or live in Israel. And so, within a few decades after the death of Jesus, Christianity evolved from a sect of Judaism into its own religion. As its own religion, it defined itself over and against its parent. By the the middle of the Second Century CE, Christians had stopped celebrating Shabbat. Only the Lord's Day remained as their weekly commemoration. In the beginning days of Christianity, the Lord's Day was not a day of rest. It was a day for Christians to gather, to seek forgiveness/reconciliation, work out problems, and participate in the Eucharist/holy meal with one another. However, they continued to work and did not join in the Shabbat rituals and customs of their Jewish brothers and sisters. In 321 CE Emperor Constantine decreed, "On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed." The Emperor wedded the cessation of work with the Lord's Day.
As time went on Christians continued to struggle with the full expression of the Lord's Day. Many early leaders referred to it as the 8th Day - a day out of time as humans understand it, a day that celebrates new creation. As Genesis tells of the first creation, the Resurrection of Christ invites us into a second creation. The 8th Day mirrors the 1st Day in this way. There are other Christian practices that echo Jewish ones. Corporate worship, a holy meal, prayers, learning, reconciliation, hospitality to the stranger - these are all things embedded in the Jewish practice of Shabbat. Christianity kept them and often added new interpretations for them. Christianity did not keep the Jewish practice of refraining from 39 activities listed in the building of the Tabernacle. Christianity, in not requiring conversion to Judaism, also left behind dietary rules, circumcision, and various kinds of dress codes and holiness practices.
By the 20th Century CE, especially in American Protestantism, the Lord's Day had become a hybrid experience. Work was taboo in most places. Most communities had actual laws that forbade their opening or operation.* But, it was also a dour experience. The Puritan practice of long solemn prayers infused most of Protestantism. Games that could be associated with gambling were forbidden. Dancing and other suggestive activities were disallowed by many denominations. Protestantism in general and the Lord's Day in particular had become solemn in nature and not joyful - not an experience of the Resurrection.
By the 1980s, blue laws had lost their hold. Businesses were open on both Saturday and Sunday. No longer was there a day during the week that the State demanded to be observed as a day of rest. New ethnic groups and religions started to be found in traditionally homogenous Christian neighborhoods; they brought with them their own holidays, observances, and customs. The Protestant calendar was yielding to a more inclusive calendar. Overall, I think this is wonderful. We should not rely upon the State to force us into religious practice. We should not force our calendars on other peoples. We should not depend upon our employers or the government to make our holy days special. But, for the first time in American history, Protestants were and are being called to be responsible for their own faith identity and their own spiritual disciplines. This is a difficult thing for people who have not had to intentionally attend to these things.
Today more people are apt to live away from extended families. More often than not, both parents are working, or there is only one parent in the household. Businesses are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With smart phones and the internet, the office is just a click away. No longer are we "at work" or "at home." Work comes with many of us wherever we go. Fewer people are getting married in their 20s. Fewer people are having children in their 20s. Families come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors. Schools are less geographically based; for example, your kid may go to one school, but your next door neighbor's child may attend another school. All of this describes a world that is increasingly fragmented as well as diffuse. People are pulled in many different directions and many of the boundaries upon which we once relied are not there to help us move away from work and into rest or away from labor and into leisure. Many of the activities upon which we relied to give us a sense of identity and a sense of community are gone. This fragmentation of experience affects all of us in one way or another. And, what once would have been shared experiences are less natural and given. They must be sought out.
Christians would do well to understand that to be a faithful follower of Jesus, especially in today's fragmented world, we must attend to our spiritual practices, be regular in our practices, and insist upon the separateness of holy days. If we do not attend to these things, we will continue to live divided lives - half here, half someplace else. Reimagining Shabbat for Christians in this postmodern age is one way that I think we can begin to reclaim right relationship with time, with God, with our place in relation to other creation, and with ourselves. If one looks at Jesus' life and teachings, the centrality of Sabbath is evident. Whether he is teaching in a synagogue, declaring the Year of the Lord's Favor, welcoming the stranger, or healing the ill, Jesus is making room for all people to enter into the fullness of God - the Shabbat vision. Jews call it shalom; Christians call it the Kingdom of God. As his followers, are we not to do the same? To seek ways for all people to enter into the fullness of God? To live whole lives? To be free of oppression? This is the Shabbat vision, and it is one that we can imagine anew for ourselves, pulling in part of our Lord's Day traditions, retouching the traditions of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and by imaging new practices that have yet to be born among us.
Please take the Sabbath Pledge:
I pledge to take one day a week during which I will:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. While I may work six days, on the seventh day, I won't work; I won't ask anyone to work for me; I will not expect my rest to depend upon another's labor. If God can create the whole of the universe in six days and rest on the seventh day, so I can rest one day a week. (See Exodus 20:8-11).
I will rest for God. I will celebrate this scripture from Deuteronomy: "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." I am not a slave. Nor shall there by slavery in God's holy kingdom.
I pledge to reflect upon the first story of Sabbath, which appears before the 10 Commandments. Read Exodus 16. In it God provides manna for people in the wilderness, and they are instructed not to take more than their share, but to take a double portion before the 7th day, on which they shall rest. This story binds Sabbath and justice, Sabbath and abundance. What can you do - what practices can you incorporate - on your Sabbath and in your everyday living that remind you of justice and abundance?
*Blue Laws - According to Merriam Webster: "a statute regulating work, commerce, and amusements on Sundays"
The first known blue law was in 1762 in Connecticut.