Monday, August 10, 2015

Thoughts on the Sabbath

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of hearing a Sacrament Meeting talk about the importance of the Sabbath. And it made me think: while I haven't always been the best Sabbath-day observer, I have read some very interesting things over the last few years about the idea of Sunday as a day of worship.

One of them is from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's notebooks, as collected in the book Culture and Value:
"The Sabbath is not simply a time for rest, for relaxation. We ought to contemplate our labors from without and not just from within."
Sunday is a time to step back from our work so that we can see it clearly. For you can only see something clearly if you are separate or "set apart" from it. Just like the artist who steps back from his painting to see not just the details but also the overarching sweep of it, the Sabbath helps us see our work from a higher viewpoint. One might even say that it gives us a view sub specie aeternitatis--from the perspective of eternity.

Think back to the origin story for our seven-day week: the very first chapter of the Bible, or Genesis 1. God creates heaven and the earth in six days, and on the seventh day He rests. Or in other words, on days 1-6 God is in the thick of creating the earth, the sky, and their inhabitants, while on the seventh day God separates Himself from that creation by ceasing His work. So, is the Sabbath perhaps a time to symbolize God's withdrawal from the world so that we don't make the mistake of confusing it with Him? The relationship of Sunday to the rest of the week would then signify God in relation to the work of His creation, respectively; Monday through Saturday stands for the work of His hands; Sunday stands for His presence as it is in itself.

Emanuel Swedenborg said almost exactly this in the first volume of his length project Arcana Coelestia or Secrets of Heaven, which attempts a verse-by-verse symbolic interpretation of Genesis and Exodus. Speaking of the verse on the seventh day in Genesis 2, he writes: 
"A heavenly person is the seventh day. And since the Lord worked through six days, that individual is called his work. Conflict then comes to an end, as a result of which the Lord is said to rest from all his work. This is why the seventh day was consecrated and named 'Sabbath,' from [a Hebrew word for] rest. In the process the human being has been made, formed, and created, as the words themselves clearly indicate."
He writes not more than a page later that the Lord, as the person in whose image we are made, is the true Sabbath. As alluded to in my remarks just above, this perspective means that Sunday is to God as Monday through Saturday is to the world. This means that when we commemorate His creative efforts through our work during the week, we point that work to Him for whom the Sabbath is a symbol. In other words, by ending and beginning our weeks with Sabbath worship, we come together with God in a repose apart from work, works, or action. On Sunday, God isn't at the end of the road, but here with us; He isn't there, but here. Sunday is God incarnate in the calendar week.

How often do we assume that God lies only at the end of the road, that we must work endlessly and tirelessly to get to Him? Work is (and works are) important, yes; however, we do not earn salvation by work. If the week's arrangement tells us anything, it is that God is not in our work, but apart from it. Even after all the work is done, we can only reach Him in stillness, in non-action, by receiving His grace. Works only prepare us to receive Him; on the plan of salvation's figurative "work week," we can only ever empty ourselves of pride enough to receive Him on the figurative Sunday. When the Sabbath comes, we can only rest and know that He is already here, present in our weakness.

See the Sabbath whenever you thus receive God's grace; see it in the restful peace of mind that comes whenever you stop fretting and rest comfortably in faith and hope. The Sabbath is God with us, His presence in our lives, His "there" in our "here." It is the substance of life itself, when received fully and without turning away. We remember this on Sunday, for by our literal rest from work we remind ourselves of the ultimate insufficiency of work or works alone. For God doesn't come through our force of will to reach Him, as though He were "there." He is instead always here, we see Him to the extent we realize He cannot be captured by work or works in themselves.

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