By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
“On the seventh day, God completed the work He had been doing; He rested on the seventh day from all the work He had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work He had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3).
A curious student of Scripture might ask why God is depicted as resting at the end of His creative endeavors. Philosophically speaking, the divine essence is ever unchanging, and therefore has no need of rest as our limited physical bodies do. God, in other words, does not run marathons and get winded, or pull an all-nighter to write a term paper and require rejuvenating sleep. Why, then, is God’s rest (in Hebrew, shabbat) the culminating act of creation?
The marvelous theological answer is that the Sabbath is introduced not for God’s sake, but for Israel’s. Their very identity as a people faithful to the Lord’s covenant is rooted in the proper understanding of time as worship, evidenced by the third commandment: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8). Human beings have few opportunities to imitate God, so vast is the gulf between the Almighty and us. The Sabbath, then, is the most precious and privileged way for Israel to do as God does, and in that way to share in the goodness of God’s creative work through time. If the Sabbath is the capstone of creation, and God pauses to marvel at the beauty of the created order, so must Israel if it wishes to participate fully in the Lord’s love and life.
I have learned a great deal from Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most gifted writers and theologians of the twentieth century. In his riveting book, “The Sabbath,” Rabbi Heschel calls the day of rest “a cathedral in time,” a calm opening to the eternal after the relentless pursuit of progress, haste, and productivity that we call the workweek:
“Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world; on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”
For Heschel, the Sabbath is the reminder that time itself is a hallowed gift of God. It invites us to remember that we are not consumptive minions enslaved to our instruments, technology, and work, but images of God created for communion, love, and joyful worship. Far from a mere utilitarian breather before resuming the onslaught of busyness, the Sabbath rest demands that we remember our own dignity as beings capable of admiring and resting in the Lord’s superabundant creative love. Graces then flow from the Sabbath across the span of days, as Heschel notes:
“The Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the companionship of all other days. All days of the week must be spiritually consistent with the Day of Days. All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring us should be ever present in our minds […] What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us. The law of the Sabbath day is in the life of the spirit what the law of gravitation is in nature.”
Rabbi Heschel’s loving description of the Sabbath enriches my Christian understanding of our day of rest, transferred to Sunday as we remember the new creation inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection “on the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1). We can learn much from the loving devotion our Jewish brethren give to the Sabbath. In addition to the communal Sunday Mass, we do well to ponder how we might sanctify our Sabbath time by “wasting” it on nothing productive other than marveling at the creative beauty of the world and polishing the image of God in ourselves and in each other.
Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.