When God calls us to rest, he shows us what he can do while we sit back
You shall carry out an audit. If one commandment were to be added to the ten by our generation, this one would have some claim to pre-eminence. More aspects of our common life are being audited than ever before. We want to make sure things are working, that people are conducting their jobs properly and that service users are getting value for money. Yet our attention is selective and partial. The audit trail reflects prevailing ideologies and rarely encompasses aspects of our lives where the outcome might challenge those very beliefs.
In 2014 it will be twenty years since the law was changed to allow widespread retail trading on Sundays. The law was being flouted by several large retailers prior to this point, with a view to imposing their will on broader society, but these two decades in particular mark a half-generation moment in a major social experiment. Sunday was a protected day for centuries, and then suddenly it wasn’t. Were we wrong all along to restrict work hours on a Sunday? Or were we abolishing a vital symbol of what it means to be human from our social landscape? Both could not be right, and so the experiment alone should tell us something. So where is the audit? The answer, of course, is that there will be no audit because vested commercial interests would not allow it. And so our generation will be known as the one that abolished the distinctive seventh day.
There are deep questions to be asked about the impact on the workforce, family life and the environment, three crucial components of our common life. While we audit infinitesimally small changes in other ways, this panoramic shift will remain unchallenged. Eventually a generation of public leaders will emerge which never experienced Sunday as a different day, and by then it will be too late to raise these questions in ways that people can see and feel; memory will have been extinguished.
When the Sunday trading laws were being repealed, the libertarian argument was that everyone should be free to mark a day off each week when they wanted it, rather than together on a Sunday. This was disingenuous, at best. How much fun is it to have a day off when friends and family are working or to work when they are resting? People find it difficult to adhere to their day of rest when others do not share it. The lack of a shared day of rest more generally makes it hard for people to assimilate the principles of Sabbath. We complain about the pace of life today, how everyone is always connected and how little space there is to breathe, without realising this is a direct consequence of abandoning our historic shared day of rest. We exhibit all the symptoms, but cannot identify the cause because it has been excised from our collective consciousness.
Christians, aware of the joy and hope that Sabbath represents, should keep the memory through active practice, but we struggle with the temptations. Does it really matter if we keep working week after week without a break? There are, after all, important bits of work to attend to, even on a day of rest. In this way, we allow the grace by which we live to slip into licence. Because there is no law against it, we do not feel guilty for neglecting Sabbath principles and may miss what God is seeking to tell us.
The passion narrative is so familiar that we miss one component of it. After Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross, it says the women who followed him from Galilee to his brutal end prepared spices and ointments for his burial. Desperate to dignify his body in death and to keep busy as a way of coping with this insensible act, they were ready to get to work but we read: ‘on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment’. In the aftermath of bereavement, mourners have a compulsion to keep busy. To be passive is to invite the enormity of the death to overwhelm us; to work is the medium through which we prefer to experience the grief, even if it is as simple as making a drink or preparing a bed for those who will descend on us.
The women in the story of Jesus’ death were obedient to the command to rest, even though it would hurt them and expose their emotions on an endless day of inactivity. How much easier it would have been to keep busy! If they had succumbed to the temptation to work, they would have hurried off to Jesus’ final resting place to care for his body. This might have assuaged their horror at the violent death of a loved friend. It would also have meant they would not have been there on the Sunday. They would have cared for his body but missed his resurrection. Their faithfulness to God in this way, so subtly referred to in the narrative, produced incalculable dividends of joy.
When God calls us to rest, he shows us what he can do while we sit back.
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