“There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23: 3)
Executive Secretary, Pochury Baptist Church Council
Taking for granted that the readers have been well informed by the earlier writers in this series on the concept of the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday, the terms Sabbath, the Seventh Day, and Sunday are freely used interchangeably in this write-up. Except for the difference in the choice of dates and their distinctive historical origin, the spiritual outlook of people with regard to the holiness of the two days is essentially, more or less, the same. Sunday is to the Christians what Sabbath is to the Jews. With this perspective in mind, we shall try to understand the basic concept of Sunday, better known as the Lord’s Day in liturgical parlance, and its observation in the contemporary Naga Christian society.
In 2014, the year the BJP led party rose to power, when the NDA government introduced Good Governance Day on December 25, coinciding with the birth day of the former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Christians across all denominational backgrounds voiced in unison their disapproval of the government’s new initiative. Some state governments, where Christians have a sizeable presence, came out openly and opposed the government policy, terming it as sacrilegious and a move to insult the sacrosanct nature of other’s faith. The government’s decision was also interpreted by many as an attack on the Constitution itself which guarantees and safeguards the rights of the minorities. A united move put up by the Christian community such as this, though expediently brushed aside by the government, is received as a shot in the arm, especially by religious minorities in the context of the present-day India.
Today we demand that business should be allowed to take place on Sundays, and restriction on certain other activities should be relaxed. Going by the example of our spiritual laxity, one wonders for tomorrow what bigger concession we might demand. What if one day we wake up to the news that the government has passed a Bill in parliament and that Sunday is declared a working day and that all government servants and its establishments run their business as usual? God forbids that we live to see that day come in our land. But be warned, considering the growing intolerance against religious minorities in the country and the insignificant presence of Christians in the ocean of the so-called Hindu rashtra, striking off one of the Ten Commandments, to observe the Sabbath (Sunday), and making it a working day is not an impossible thing for the government of the day to do.
In similar tone of protest, when the observation of Sunday in letter and in spirit is being questioned openly and freely by Christians themselves in the Christian states, there appears to be no one who is prepared to stand up and speak out in support of maintaining the sanctity of the Lord’s Day. Interestingly, the same group of people who insisted that the sanctity of Christmas be not polluted with an admixture of another national holiday are found demanding that the day of rest and worship should be also declared as a day for work and business. We find Christians contradicting with Christians in a predominantly Christian state on an issue which is cardinal to our faith. Christmas, no doubt, is as important a religious event as any other important event in the Christian calendar. But when we consider the importance of Sabbath, it holds a unique place of significance. God commanded its observation with religious austerity and stringency. The gravity of observing and maintaining the sacredness of Sabbath is reinforced in the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue.
The injunction to observe Sabbath is mentioned several times, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament writings. It is first mentioned in the creation account and very explicitly spelled out in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. It says that God worked six days and took rest on the seventh day and he blessed it as holy. Not only did God observe the Sabbath but he also required the rest of his creation to observe its holiness by refraining from performing any work. “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23: 3) There are three key concepts worth considering on this subject: work, rest, holiness.
Work: A comparative study of different worldviews will show different explanations on the relationship between God and the world. While one prominent worldview holds that a spiritual God cannot be the creator of a material world and therefore the existence of the world, either real or unreal, is not the work of God. A theistic worldview, on the other hand, as represented by Christianity, believes that God, though a spiritual Being, is the creator of everything, both material and immaterial. The Christian God is a God who works and so is his creation. We are the result of God’s work. As the image bearer of a working God, humans are made to continue the work God has begun in us.
After the fall, as a punishment for their disobedience to God’s commandment, human was required to work and earn for his/her livelihood by the sweat of his/her brow, but even prior to the fall, human was entrusted by God with the responsibility to care for God’s creation and multiply them. Before the fall, human worked with pleasure; after the fall, human work under pressure. In either case, work is not evil in itself. The life of Jesus is an example of what work is all about. Constantly travelling from village to village and from town to town, visiting people, teaching and preaching, healing the sick, always on the move, there was no time for him to rest and enjoy his meal in peace. “Many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat…” (Mark 6: 31)
Jesus emphasizes that we should do the work of God who sent us while it is day. Night is coming when no human can work. One of the slogans of the Reformation leaders was “Earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, and give as much as you can.” This philosophy of hard work is believed to have inspired the onset of Industrial Revolution in England and in Europe.
Rest: Nothing in this world is built to last forever. The wear and tear of parts needs repairing and rejuvenation, if it should perform well. One day a person goes to the wood with his new axe and fells twenty trees. The next day he goes to the same wood and works the same hour as the first day but fells only ten trees. On the third day, he goes again to the same wood and works exactly the same hour but this time he could fell only five trees. What is the explanation for the decrease in the number of trees felled while working with the same axe in the same wood for the same number of hours? The reason: he did not sharpen his axe on the second and the third day. Rest time is not a waste of time; it is repairing time. If we should improve our performance and increase our productivity, rest is essential. In the midst of very tight schedule, Jesus always finds time to rest and commune with his father.
How about God resting on the seventh day? Did He rest on the seventh day because he got tired and so needed a break to regain lost energy? Some reason that God worked for six straight days only and ever since then he has been resting. The truth is that God is still working and he does not get tired of working. That new babies continue to arrive into this world and seeds go on germinating is a confirmation that God is still at work. But this same working God who loves working is also a God who loves taking rest.
The book of Genesis tells us that each day God concludes his work of creation with a satisfactory assessment of his own performance before he moves on to a new project. On the seventh day he makes a final and conclusive appraisal of his six days work and says, “Very good!” Rest is invariably necessary in order to make a good evaluation of our own work. What separates human beings from the rest of God’s creation is our intuitive nous of “self awareness” and the presence of a “Supreme Being.” If a person spends all his/her waking hours for himself/herself and spares no time to rest and reflect on the most important concern of his/her life, he/she will miss the whole point. Such person is like the rich fool in the Bible who wants to extend the size of his granary and make more rooms for more wealth. Jesus had to call him a “foolish man” and remind him that his wealth accounts for nothing when he is not going to live another day to enjoy his wealth.
Taking a day off in a week for rest in the presence of God is an investment worth considering. While validating the devotional attitude of Mary who finds time to rest at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teachings, as her sister troubles herself with all kinds of domestic business, Jesus reprimands Martha and says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10: 38-42)
Holiness: When the Bible says that God consecrates the seventh day, it is only natural for a fallen human in his/her sinful predisposition to assume that God consecrates that which was previously not sacred. But that is not true when we understand the context in which consecration is said to have taken place. Sin has not entered the world yet and human, in his/her state of innocence and purity, has not known sin, at least until the seventh day. Besides, God’s self certification of his own creation as “very good” is an authentication of the perfection of the created order then. Therefore, consecration of the seventh day can only mean setting apart of a particular day wholly for human to rest from work and reflect on God and his relation with his creation.
God is a jealous God; He demands undivided attention and loyalty from his subjects. Every day should be lived in the awareness of the presence of a holy God, but God insists that one particular day in a week is exclusively His. The holiness of the seventh day should not be adulterated with other pursuits of personal interest. No human can serve two interests at the same time without losing out on one of the two.
While opposing the legalistic observation of Sabbath, as advocated by the ultra orthodox Jews of his time, Jesus reinterprets its purpose on the basis of saving life and glorifying the name of God. To the question why the person who received healing on Sabbath was born blind, Jesus rubbishes the unsubstantiated rationalization of the scribes and explains that he was born like that so it would offer an opportunity for Jesus to heal him and in so doing the name of God would be glorified. Not only this man did Jesus heal on Sabbath but he also healed a number of other people with many different kinds of infirmities, not asking whether or not it was Sabbath. In these acts of kindness, Jesus neither desecrates nor dishonours the ordinance of Sabbath. Jesus thinks that Sabbath should be a day to save life and not take one. This had brought Jesus and the religious leaders of the day into sharp confrontation. Allegedly that was one of the reasons why the Jews demanded that he be put to dead.
The religious authorities of the day charged him of breaking the time-honoured Law of Moses because he healed the sick and saved life on Sabbath. According to Jesus, Sabbath is made for human; human is not made for Sabbath. Sunday or Monday, extending helping hands to others in need is a welcoming gesture that should be encouraged, but “turning the temple of God into a den of robbers” on the pretext of doing social service on Sunday is ethically and morally uncalled-for. Wealth is a gift from God and it definitely has value so long as we are here on earth, but life is more than that. To the devil who appears really concerned about his wellbeing after having fasted for forty days, Jesus, in no uncertain term, clarifies by saying, “Man cannot live by bread alone.”
Sabbath is not just another holiday; it is a holy day. God instituted and consecrated this day as a day of rest for himself and for his creation. Rest in this case is not simply a total suspension of human occupation and a retreat to lethargy and total inactivity. It also does not fall in line with the Gandhian way of thinking in which work is equated to worship, a justification many succumb to for their self-serving argument. Very importantly, it is a day to worship God without the interference from the routine activities of the other working days. The manner in which one worships God may vary from person to person and from culture to culture, but the attitude and behaviour of the worshipper should be one of holiness and total submission to the will of God. A deviation from this truth would mean nothing but a departure from the commandment of God.
This is the eight article of the Sabbath/ Sunday Series, an initiative of Oriental Theological Seminary.