Sunday: Working towards the Seventh Day

David McLoughlin shows us the difference between rest and restlessness and of how we are called to become the seventh day.

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Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished all the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day and he hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in Creation.”
Genesis 2:1-3

The pressures of our 24/7 culture have repercussions on the human heart according to the latest reports on spiralling heart disease across the planet. The Scriptures well understand that when the deepest aspirations of the human spirit are not met they make their lack felt in our bodies. The Sabbath is God’s gift to us, helping us to realise that our lives are ultimately not what we make them, the fruit of effort, but are what we receive from the gifting love of God.

Why does God rest and what does this tell us about the reality God creates? God’s work is not like much of our labour – draining of energy and exhausting of effort. There is no suggestion in the Genesis text that God struggled to create. Indeed, he looked on all his work and saw it was very good. He rejoiced in its richness and fertility. So his rest is no escape from labour.

The medieval rabbi Rashi argued that what was left unfinished was creation’s purpose, which is why on the seventh day God created menuha, a term we can translate as the tranquillity, serenity, and peace of God. What menuha communicates is the happiness and contentment that come from experiencing and knowing that things are as they ought to be, and that they are primordially and constitutively good. What menuha teaches is that the point and purpose of creaturely life is for it to be cherished and celebrated.” (Wizba, 2023, p.145)

The Creation that God looks out on is delightful. The blessing, the hallowing of this day, is that all who share it are invited to enter its delight, to enter the joy and generous love of God.

This leads the Jewish mystic Heschel to say “All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring to us should be ever present in our minds. For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.”

Heschel, A.J. (1951) The Sabbath. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p.89.

The opposite of God’s rest then is not activity but restlessness. When we are restless we cannot delight in others, or creatures, or the world around us, or even in ourselves and what we have and are. Sabbath rest however embraces all that leads to a more hospitable world that is a celebration of the divine pluriform creativity. It is the opportunity to enter more richly into the vision of a world loved into, and sustained in, being by a rejoicing God. It is the opportunity to see the world as hallowed, as gift to be consciously, attentively, cherished. Rest here is to delight in an ever more discerning and attached way to the desire of God that all should be good, indeed very good.

This understanding will eventually find a mature expression in the commandments in the book of Exodus 20:8-11. Now the good of all creatures depends on their inclusion into the divine Sabbath rest:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh.”

Jeremiah will later interpret the fall of the nation to its inability to rest on the Sabbath and so lose the vision that that rest alone guaranteed (Jeremiah 17:19-27). Sabbath is not pure passivity and collusion with the way things are, it comes after six days of work linked to God’s own loving creating and sustaining of the world. We are invited to reflect on how we have worked and used the power we have, and how this has impacted others and on other creatures. Are the fruits of our work enhancing ours and others’ lives? The next time in the Scriptures when the commandment is re-stated this becomes very clear:

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.”
Deuteronomy 5:15

The creator did not abandon them in the desert, but provided daily food and water throughout their wandering through the wilderness towards the promised land. The loving Creator remains now as a loving Redeemer. And the ongoing mechanism of redemption is the sabbath rest.

The observance of the Sabbath year enabled the Land itself to participate in the Sabbath rest (Leviticus 25:1-7). With no sowing, pruning or planting, the people are to live off what the land gives and yields, trusting in God while receiving and gathering rather than controlling. We learn not to grasp but to live generously with other creatures and life forms. In the Jubilee year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, which takes place every fifty years, this is taken to another level. All those who have lost land or freedom are to be restored to their family homes (Leviticus 25:8-24) and the land of their ancestors. So the Jubilee year recognises that God is the ultimate owner of the land and that profit and ownership may not expand at the expense and alienation of others. Isaiah addresses this:

“Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no-one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.”

But even a cursory reading of Genesis opens up for us a very different picture. The common theme in God’s creation is delight in all that is created “And God saw how good it was.” The Sabbath is sanctified by the divine pleasure in the created world. This is the “dominion” of God and it is this that we are invited to share and reflect. Psalm 92 celebrates this:

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name O Most High,
to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the work of your hands I sing for joy.”

In the regular practice of Sabbath rest there is the possibility that action and wisdom will come together for the benefit of all. As Heschel writes:

“We are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

Heschel, A.J. (2005) The Sabbath. NY: Farrow, Straus and Giroux, p.10.

Sabbath is a practice of hope that the future of the world does not ultimately depend on our efforts but on God’s promises. It expresses the possibility of a new humanity based on equality and the elimination of exploitation. It enacts in anticipation what creation will be when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Augustine expressed this memorably in his book The City of God (Bk XXII)  when speaking of the final time of Creation: “We ourselves shall be the seventh day.”
May it be so!

For discussion:

How does this exploration of Divine rest and the Sabbath challenge you to review your own work/life balance?

What is the difference for you between rest and restlessness?

How can we influence policy makers to develop and sustain working practices that enable us to flourish?

What practical actions can we promote to enhance the common life of human beings, creatures and other life forms in this fragile world?

Further reading:

Groody, D.G. (2015, revised ed.) Globalisation, Spirituality and Justice. Navigating the path to peace. NY: Orbis

Wirzba, N. (2021). This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World. Cambridge: CUP

Reflection on a Painting by Fleur Dorrell

Kevin and the Sunflowers by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. 2009. Private Collection.

This beautiful painting of St Kevin is by the wonderful Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins. It is based on Seamus Heaney’s poem about St Kevin and his legend which inspired Hicks-Jenkins to set about portraying how he imagined the legend to be.

The original legend tells us that St Kevin was a 5th-century hermit living in Glendalough in County Wicklow, Ireland. During one Lent, Kevin devoted himself to reading and praying in a cave in a remote part of Glendalough. He lived there for seven years and it is now known as St Kevin’s bed. It is perhaps called this because the cave was so small with only enough room for a bed, but it kept out the sun and rain. It was there that the saint gave himself up to contemplation each day. On one particular day, while Kevin lifted up his hands to the heavens just outside the cave, he probably also needed a stretch from being in such a cramped place, a blackbird alighted on his hand, and treating it as a nest, laid its eggs there.

Kevin was so moved with compassion towards the blackbird, that with a patient, loving heart, he neither closed his hand nor withdrew it, but held it out and adapted it until the young were fully hatched and also fledged. This required enormous composure, stamina and restraint. It  is an example of selflessness since it usually takes about two weeks for blackbird eggs to hatch.

So this is a story of patience, self-sacrifice and love of creation in the service of God. It is about being aligned with God and his creation rather than being in competition or self-defence against them. We are invited to reflect on how we understand our place in the world and the environment around us. St Kevin chose to use his will and power to the good of a passing creature, a bird that he could assist in its own purpose. Together through his wisdom and action, they were able to benefit each other. The blackbird taught Kevin the possibility of a new humanity based on equality, which in this single moment anticipated what all of creation will be when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled.

It is a delightful story of generosity and harmony.  All of us are blessed when we offer a new day to God without weighing up the cost to ourselves. In that spirit we enter into the delight and generous love of God and we become who we are called to be as children of the light.

When we are focused only on ourselves we are constantly restless and dissatisfied. We do not notice the world around us as clearly, nor can we delight in others, in creatures, or attend to their needs.

When we make time for a Sabbath rest from our daily work, when we take time for God just as St Kevin did, we help to create a more hospitable world. It provides us with the opportunity to enter more richly into the Kingdom of God and a new model of creation at peace with itself. It is the opportunity to see the world as sacred and to praise its maker. Creation here is received as a gift to be attentively cherished rather than possessed or challenged. In old Celtic manuscripts St Kevin is often recounted respecting nature such as when he protected a wild boar, an otter, wood and trees as well as other plants and birds. The equilibrium of his devotion to the environment, to his faith and his fellow monks, reveals the beauty of his spirituality and his becoming the seventh day himself.

The Bible text that I think can echo this legend is Romans 12:1-2 in the new life in Christ:

12I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Here, Paul was challenging the new believers in Rome to offer themselves to God, not as a sacrifice on the altar, as the Law of Moses required of the sacrifice of animals, but as a living sacrifice. Although under the Old Covenant, God accepted the sacrifices of animals – these were just a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Because of His ultimate, once and-for-all sacrifice on the cross, the Old Testament sacrifices became obsolete and unnecessary – which is what we also read in Hebrews chapter 9. So when we follow Christ in faith, the only acceptable worship is to offer ourselves primarily to the Lord. To worship with all our senses and not just intellectually or at arm’s length in a detached manner.

If we wonder what a living sacrifice looks like today, then this painting and legend point us in the right direction. We are a living sacrifice for God not by being conformed to this world, but by being in it and serving God through it – in this case by placing the bird’s needs before our own. A bird that was created by God and through whom we can come to love God more deeply.

St Kevin’s feast day is 3rd June.

Prayer for our Earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

Laudato Si, on ‘Care for our Common Home.’ Pope Francis, 24th May 2015.