1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. [Genesis 2:1-4, NRSV]
The Fourth Commandment of the Ten Commandments is key to our relationship with the Creator. It calls us to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”. It is derived squarely from the Book of Exodus:
- “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8-11).
This Sabbath-commandment concludes the section of the Ten Commandments that specifically helps define a proper relationship with God – in love and worship, and in relating to Him through dedication of time for remembering Him and drawing closer to Him.
God said, through the pen of Isaiah:
- 13 If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 14 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14).
Jesus and His apostles kept the Sabbath (Luke 4:16), so did Paul (Acts 17:2).
Keeping the Sabbath rest is a way to honour the pattern of work set by the Creator God who spent six days of creative productivity, and then rested on the seventh day.
In his book, In the Beginning, Pope Benedict suggests that as creation is oriented to the Sabbath, what we get is the sign of the covenant between God and humankind. Creation is designed in such a way that it is oriented to worship. Our life’s rhythm is likewise oriented. Creation accounts of all civilizations point to the fact that the universe exists for worship and for the glorification of the Ultimate Reality whom Judaeo-Christians acknowledge as the Creator-God . All this is primordial knowledge.
Humanity, however, is mired in two dangers. The first is an obstacle posed by science and technology. Technological civilization cuts us off from this primordial knowledge, just as our increasing scientific know-how prevents us from knowing the fact of creation and the deeper truths in creation.
The second danger is an obstacle that comes from a misunderstanding of what worship is about. Often, the idea of worship gets misinterpreted to mean that in worship the human beings give something to the gods that they themselves stand in need of, that the divinity demands this attention, and that this worship has for its purpose the preservation of the world. Benedict sees all this as offering possibilities for manipulation and control. In this light, we in the Catholic Church must be ever-conscious of a particular vulnerability with regard to the celebration of the Eucharist. All the more, we suggest, must we consciously return to the three priority reasons which define what it is and why it is that we participate in a communal celebration of the Supper of the Lord, namely, in that order:
- to remember what God has done for us in Jesus Christ (memoria);
- remembering, to give thanks (eucharistia); and
- remembering and grateful, to offer authentic, loving and sacrificial service in Jesus’ name (diakonia).
Pope Benedict sees this incisively: “This means that worship has a moral aspect to it. God’s whole moral order has been taken up into it; only thus is it truly worship.”
The Sabbath structure of creation
In sum, then, God created the universe in order to enter into a history of love with humankind. He created it so that love could exist – vertically between humanity and Him, and horizontally in human community.
Given the Sabbath structure of creation, by keeping the Sabbath, we are celebrating the covenant between God and humankind. Two profoundly important ideas ensue right here.
First, is the idea of universal equality. Rich or poor, we all get to take a break on the Sabbath, to dedicate attention to the Creator. The foundation of universal equality has helped the development of the Mosaic law. The concept grew and extended, so that in every seventh year, for instance, there would be a Sabbath when the earth and human beings could rest, when debts got cancelled, and purchases and sales annulled.
The second idea concerns human slavery to activity. As people rejected God’s rest and peace, they fell into the slavery of their activity (2 Chronicles 36:21), so that they had to be snatched from the obstinate attachment to their work. To celebrate the Sabbath means to return to the Source. As the monastic Saint Benedict would put it, nothing must be put before the service of God.
Once we observe that, we immediately have the opportunity to see better and thus to correct the errors and “defilement” that our work has brought with it vis-à-vis the will of the Creator. The Sabbath offers us a break to see things more clearly, and then to begin anew, to go forth into a new world with a new vision.
In the appendix to the book, Pope Benedict’s theological thinking suggests that he wants to see a shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric focus. Given his manifest desire to drag us back to God, he typically asks: “Is there something proper to the human being that ultimately can be explained only in theological terms?” What is the alternative if we do not ask this “theological” question? “Creation” gets eclipsed. When humankind is left to the realm of the natural sciences alone, the answer is grossly inadequate.
It is likewise grossly inadequate when theology only seeks its truth in praxis, rather than in the higher ideals of what the human person is. Away from the mystery of “What are we?” – our identity, our being – theology tends only to attend to the question of “What can we do?” – which pertains to action and doing. This is a false dichotomy, as a proper appreciation of one’s identity would naturally ensue in right actions in life. Only with a proper appreciation of who we are can we generate authentic living.
There is a paradox in all this. On one hand, there is a common forgetfulness of creation and the Creator. As human beings construct a better world for themselves, trusting their own creativity and their own productivity, thus ignoring or forgetting to honour the Giver of all there is on a Sabbath rest, their resistance to creation stands out ever more clearly. Busy and productive human beings easily descend to the false comprehension of themselves as “creators”. As a result, Pope Benedict laments the fact that “God’s creation and ‘nature’ are having to defend themselves against the limitless pretensions of human beings as creators.”
All is not lost, however. On the other hand, as humans concentrate on “doing”, on producing a better world to live in, on limitless creating as creators, they are also rudely awakened by the eco-crisis that they are creating so that, once again, attention to the doctrine of creation grows. For as human beings relentlessly approach the world only as material for their unrestricted creativity, they finally realize that they are a threat to themselves and to the world in which they live. Their own creations no longer appear as a hope, but rather as a threat: “humans are sawing off the branch on which they sit”!
Today, it can be immensely helpful and practical to “organise” a Sabbath-break for children from their self-enclosed excessive electronic-gadget-indulgence, to the detriment of healthy inter-personal relationships. Take them to a picnic, for example, free from computers, electronic games, and mobile phones, and see how they begin to inter-mingle and play in delight, as children should. This freedom from electronic-activities often yields positive potentials for sibling dialogues and healthy family life.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, September 2017. All rights reserved.
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