Last Sunday, as Irene raged outside my windows, there was a loud snap followed by two tremendous flashes of light and two sharp pops. A tree was down, wires were snapped, I was without power. No lights. No cooking. No laundry. No television. Yikes – no Internet! Fortunately I had a good supply of candles on hand. As what little daylight there was faded, I read these words by their light:

“Americans, once the most Sabbatarian people on earth, are now the most ambivalent […] On the one hand, we miss the Sabbath. When we pine for escape from the rat race; when we check into spas, yoga centers, encounter weekends, spiritual retreats…when we deplore the increase in time devoted to consumption; when we complain about the commercialization of leisure which turns fun into work and requires military-scale budgeting and logistics…whenever we worry about these things, we are remembering the Sabbath, its power to protect us from the clamor of our own desires.”[1]

And so I realized I had entered into Sabbath time, a time when the clamor of my own desires would be stilled and my activities governed not by technological capabilities but by natural limitations.

The concept of Sabbath has become, I daresay, rather soft-edged for most Christians. What do we do on Sunday? We drive, cook, do laundry, play sports, even work our jobs.  Less than 40 percent of Americans go to church on Sunday. Holy Sabbath has faded into Humdrum Sunday.

With this in mind, let’s listen to the words of the fourth commandment – the lengthiest commandment:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.[2]

The interpretation and observation of this commandment has long been a matter of contention. Consider the controversies Jesus stirred up around the Sabbath, doing both expected activities – such as worship[3] – and unexpected, even unlawful, actions, such as healing, or harvesting grain. It has been noted that “[m]ore of the friction between Jesus and his Jerusalem enemies was based on matters of Sabbath observance than on any other issue, except his claims to be the Messiah.” [4]

Jesus made heretical claims about the Sabbath. “…the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath.”[5] “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even on the Sabbath.”[6]  He preached merciful interpretation rather than legalistic enforcement of Sabbath laws: “If you have a child or an ox or a sheep who has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?”[7] In summary, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”[8]

Despite his offering this new perspective on Sabbath, it was not easy to leave the old ways behind. The faithful women who had witnessed his crucifixion would not walk to his tomb to anoint his body until the Sabbath had passed.[9] (This was not a matter of walking, for that was permitted on the Sabbath, but of doing the work of anointing.)

Later, Paul did not force converts to adopt the Sabbath, but taught that it was a matter of conscience.[10] Eventually, however, he came to believe that “observing festivals, or new moons, or Sabbaths…are only a shadow of what is to come…”[11]

Fast-forward now to 1618, when King James – he of the King James Bible – issued the controversial Book of Sports, which allowed many forms of previously forbidden recreation on the Sabbath: Morris dancing, sports with sticks and balls, bear-baiting. For many who sought to “purify” the established church, this was the last straw. They “had such a deep hunger for the Sabbath – for the right kind of Sabbath --  that they left England, whose Sabbaths they considered corrupt and lax, and sailed [across the Atlantic] in order to keep the kind of disciplined, godly Sabbaths they believed would transform their earthly existence into a New Jerusalem.”[12]

If this seems like an over-reaction, consider the fate of the one Puritan – a layman – who criticized the Sabbath observations of the established church in 1630. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, had his property confiscated, his nose slit, an ear cut off, and his forehead branded “S.S.” for sower of sedition.

The cargo aboard the Mayflower and ships that followed during The Great Migrations included strong convictions about the Sabbath – convictions the Puritans were committed to including in the foundation of their new civilization.

In The Sabbath in Puritan New England, published in 1909, Alice Morse Earle writes:

“New England clergymen were rigid in the prolonged observance of Sunday. From sunset on Saturday until Sunday night they would not shave, have rooms swept, nor beds made, have food prepared, nor cooking utensils and table-ware washed. As soon as their Sabbath began they gathered their families and servants around them...and read the Bible and exhorted and prayed and recited the catechism until nine o’clock, usually by the light of one small ‘dip candle’ only.... Sweet to the Pilgrims and to their descendants was the hush of their calm Saturday night, and their still, tranquil Sabbath, — sign and token to them, not only of the weekly rest ordained in the creation, but of the eternal rest to come.” [13]

Fast forward again, to the creation of a legal structure in the colonies. You have undoubtedly heard of the infamous “blue laws” which spring directly from the Puritan understanding of the Sabbath. Many of these laws are alive and well in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, under the authority of the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. Let me offer a few examples:

So here we are: 21st century Christians living in a world where Sabbath is an anomaly. “The old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably into our lives. It scowls at our dreams of dewy relaxation and freedom from obligation. The goal of the Sabbath may be rest, but it isn’t personal liberty or unfettered leisure. The [most traditional or orthodox] Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible. Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness – the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS. In a world of brightness and portability and instant intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart.”[14]

We have shed, in many ways, the restrictive Puritan view of the Sabbath. But what has taken its place? Is going to church simply something we do before we do something else? Where do we find our vision of the New Jerusalem? Would handing 24 hours a week over to Sabbath lead us closer to the God who exists outside time?

In less than a day, power was restored in my neighborhood. But a different kind of power lingered in my heart – the power of Sabbath. 

[1] Shulevitz, Judith. The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. New York: Random House, 2011.

[2] Deut 5:12-15; This reflects the essential humanitarian nature of the Sabbath as written in Ex 23:12

[3] Mk 1:21-22; Lk 4:16

[4] Harper’s Bible Dictionary, “Sabbath,” p 632

[5] Mt 12:8, Lk 6:5

[6] Mk 2:27b-28

[7] Mt 12:9; Lk 14:5

[8] Mt 12:12b

[9] Mk 16:1ff; Mt 28:1

[10] Rom 14:5ff

[11] Col 2:16-17 passim

[12] Shulevitz, page xix.

[13] Alice Morse Earle. The Sabbath in Puritan New England. New York: Scribner, 1909

[14] Shulevitz, page 5