August 8, 2013

A Holy Stop

The Bible calls it sabbath. What’s in a name?

It’s a terrific little Hebrew word, pronounced something like shaw-bath, possessing of several interesting shades of meaning. It can mean repose, especially implying an abstention from exertion. At a basic level, sabbath calls for a weekly work interruption. For the ancient Hebrews, a day set apart during which one ceased from all labor was a bold critique of their own shared history. Their ancient forebears had been forced to work endlessly under Pharaoh’s slavery in Egypt. A day for ceasing was, among other meanings, a day of protest against the inhumanity of endless labor. Work is good (Genesis 2:15), but work can turn evil when it lacks rest.

The little word also has a shade of cessation. It calls for a stop. Such stoppage hearkens right back to our poetic beginnings, in the creation story. For six days, God summons the world we know and love into being. But on the seventh, God stops doing this. Presumably, God did not lay down in exhaustion and take a long nap. The stoppage was for enjoyment, for celebrating the deep gladness of something being finished, made complete. So a sabbath day is for stopping one kind of effort (creating) and for taking up another (blessing). Over the years, I’ve attended a number of Habitat for Humanity house dedications. There is always palpable joy in the air when those who have labored, including the homeowners, stand back and survey what has been accomplished over time. This kind of gladness is surely a shade of sabbath.

Finally, there is a sliver of meaning in sabbath that suggests “putting something away, to rid, to take away.” In this way, a weekly sabbath rest is perhaps conceived as a kind of regular recalibration. Whatever bad habits or inflicted harm or unholy allegiances are taken on during a week of labor, these are to be cast off on the last day, the holy day. Someone once described our weekly worship to me as a time to “find True North again.” This is one spirit of sabbath, I suspect. Jesus picks up on this theme in his ministry when he regularly heals on the sabbath day (Matthew 12:1–37). This drives his older, stringent brothers in the faith nuts. Healing seems like blatant work to them, and therefore is inappropriate. Yet Jesus’ healing echoes the old Hebrew root in view here: he takes away the deadly patterns of the world, he rids the body of deadly forces, he puts down evil spirits. His is a holy stoppage. Jesus argues that this is exactly what sabbath is for. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2)

A break from labor
A time for blessing
A day for putting matters right

How might the Holy Spirit be calling you and your household to a fresh practice of sabbath rest and sabbath reorientation?