Keeping Sabbath

Notes from a Sermon preached at a Night Vigil at St Brigid’s, Cardiff.

A Parking Sign restricting Parking except on SundaysThe Sabbath is God’s idea. In Exodus, God commands us to keep the Sabbath (seventh) day holy. On six days the Israelites collected manna; but the double portion of manna on the sixth day would provide for the seventh.

The Jewish people developed an extensive tradition around how the Sabbath should be kept – sometimes protecting the Sabbath by extending a “hedge around the law”, but sometimes finding scope for greater flexibility, by declaring a group of houses or even a whole village an ‘extended home’ within which domestic tasks may take place.

Jesus suggested a pragmatic approach to the Sabbath – if something can’t wait, it should be done on the Sabbath. So you can certainly rescue a boy or an ox from a pit, or heal a sick person. His disciples casually plucked corn for their own use on a Sabbath, and Jesus said the Sabbath was for humanity’s benefit, not to restrict human beings.

It is good for human beings to have a break from their labours. It is good for society that, as far as possible, we should have a shared day devoted to leisure. This creates space for nuclear and extended families to do things together.

Jesus resisted attempts by the Pharisees to pin everything down to detailed laws. Following his example, we should ask ourselves how we live the spirit of the law concerning Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath run from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday; Christians soon started keeping Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, as their day of worship.

There are many paid jobs which are not time-critical. In most circumstances a factory can pause for a day with no damage to its facilities. There are also tasks which clearly need to continue through Sunday – in healthcare and security. Then there is the interesting question of the leisure industry – should some people work on Sunday in service of the many who are taking their collective leisure?

The UK is now a multicultural society where many people do not feel a religious call to Sunday observance. So there are two questions – one, whether Sunday should be preserved as a common day of rest for British Society. The other, how Christians should assert their religious rights to keep Sunday. If 100 Christians assert that Sunday is their day of rest, British society will dismiss them. If 100,000 Christians do, society will take notice!

So here are some questions we may need to ask ourselves:

  • Should I take this job at all, if it requires me to work Sundays? Is the work the kind that ought to be left to other days?
  • Can I negotiate to not work on Sundays? The story of Dan Walker is inspiring in this regard.
  • If I do need to work on Sunday, can I protect time to put my hour in Church first? Can I negotiate time for worship?
  • If I have leisure pursuits (e.g. sports teams) which need Sunday time, can I keep those committments and put God first?
  • If I work regularly on Sunday, when do I have my personal Sabbath?
  • If one or both parents work on Sunday, can we create a fixed time in the week which is family-together time, when distracting electronic devices are turned off?

No preacher can give clear rules that will cover everyone’s personal circumstances. But these principles will help – and for deeper reflection, see Pope (now Blessed) John Paul II’s Dies Domini.