A day of rest is one of the most tangible indicators of the character of God. The contempt with which society treats it may be one of its deepest failings.
The chances are that you have enjoyed a holiday somewhere this summer, beginning it in a fraught state of mind which turned to irritability as you began to unwind, followed by blessed contentment before the anxiety pangs about the return took hold. We try to cling to those mid-holiday feelings of tranquillity in September but they are elusive, like the headiness of a fleeting summer romance. What have we done to make our world like this?
One answer is that our society has ditched the concept of Sabbath in a wanton act of self-harming. We assume our habits are personally chosen; instead they are copied and reinforced in community. We do not hold on to the principle of rest because no social permission is given. Secular ways of thinking scorn the Sabbath as a joyless limitation on human welfare. This is one of the most pernicious lies of the modern era. Sabbath enables human flourishing; it is relentless activity that shrivels the soul.
To experience the celebration of Sabbath in Israel is to know that you are free from work because everyone else around you is. We have lost collective experiences of time – rituals and celebrations – so that each one of us is compelled to create our own reality that must compete with others. This individualisation of time has severely loosened our ties one to another and spoiled what it means to enjoy a shared day of rest. Sabbath also has wider relevance because our week should be punctuated by moments of grace, where we give attention to the re-creation of our lives and relationships. The journalist Madeleine Bunting, referring to the debate about environmental sustainability, has asked whether the next related question is about human sustainability: are we squeezing our lives into moulds that will irreversibly spoil human relationships and personal creativity? It is a valid question.
The only effective way to tackle this is through a community of resistance. The bonds of rest and recreation should form a coherent witness of the Church but I know in my heart that we have failed at this counter-cultural imperative. We are as busy, if not more so, than the rest of society. Sabbath prefigures the divine rest that we shall inherit. By depriving ourselves of it we do vandalism to the hope set before us. We also ensure that people’s horizons stretch no further than the next day’s work, an incremental yet visionless way of life that is hostile to the exploration of faith.
Resistance demands courage. If we allow the expectations of other people to dictate to us we shall never break out of these insidious habits. Many people feel so trapped by the culture of work that even the smallest acts of resistance are beyond their reach. This is all the more reason for those who have the power to act to do so, for it is only in community that we can reshape the culture.
Sabbath rest is one of the most tangible indicators of the character of God and the contingency of human beings that society can embody. The contempt with which we treat it may be one of the deepest failings of our generation.
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