A series written from an ecumenical standpoint. This is a resource center or clearing house for all sorts of theology and biblical studies meant to be a compilation of theology in ecumenical dialogue.
Originally published by Resonance: A Theological Journal in Vol 3.4 “Sabbath.”
For the Christian, it is a routine struggle to tell time accurately and appropriately. We live in a fast-paced, high-tech, sound-bit driven, communicate in 140-characters or less, advertising-saturated world. Between smart phones, tablets, smart watches, and smart televisions, it is near impossible to remain separated from the rest of connected civilization. One could easily argue that our time-telling abilities are therefore also affected. To suggest just a few methods, time might be told according to the Julian calendar, to the solar/lunar calendar, or by social occurrences (Game of Thrones starts tonight, or tomorrow night is the “big game”). It is not that these things are inherently bad, but that rather than pointing to the One who made time, they point inward, to the self and to triviality. Channeling Luther and Augustine, we are a world constantly bent in on ourselves. How, then, can and should Christians tell time?
Without overstating the obvious, time is a tool of measurement marking the duration from one event to another. We keep time to assess our passage around the sun, our rotation on the earth’s axis, or the days between events such as our engagement and marriage rite. Alternatively, the Gospel of John orients time around the days of the week leading both to and from the resurrection of Jesus. The church has told time according to Caesar’s calendar for too long.
Embedded in liturgical time is the concept of sabbath. Both the liturgical calendar and the Mass are intimately connected with the biblical principle of sabbath rest and holy worship. The center of the Christian calendar is Easter, and the center of the week is worship on the Lord’s Day. The way that we tell time, as believers, is based on these high points. We focus almost exclusively on the “highs” of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. We hear sermons preached about living from Sunday to Sunday. Yet, before Palm Sunday is Lazarus Saturday; sandwiched between Cross and Resurrection is the rest and waiting of Holy Saturday. Rest and worship, participation and community, year and week cannot be separated.
The weekend has become a respite from physical labor rather than a holy sabbath given over to worshipping the Lord on his day. Learning to tell time liturgically is therefore an immersion into the salvation narrative of Jesus of Nazareth and is an active form of resistance against the rulers, powers, and authorities fighting for our primary allegiance. Liturgical time is not an alternative or counter-cultural form of marking the passing of days but is rather telling time as it really is. Even more than resistance, for the act of resisting seemingly places another in the role of primary agent/actor, sabbath is a form of participation in and engagement with the life and work of Jesus and the ongoing ministry of his body, the church.
The themes of rest and sabbath are integral to the Bible, central to Israel’s identity as God’s chosen people, and are still placed upon the church and the Christian as activities befitting believers. YHWH commanded his people on the slopes of Sinai to observe the sabbath and keep it holy.1 Bear in mind that YHWH gave the Law to a people already redeemed. This command would form the heart of Israel’s calling as she would pause every seventh day to rest, to pray, to worship. Her trade and commerce would cease; her movements would come to a shattering and silent halt; Israel looked radically different from the other civilizations of the world. YHWH states from the onset that he was freeing the Hebrews from Egypt that they might be his people and worship him in the desert.2
Throughout the Old Testament we find more rules and regulations surrounding sabbath, and the New Testament provides a picture of 2nd Temple Judaism in which sabbath observance is still of the utmost importance. The Pharisees constantly attack Jesus and his followers for their lack of proper observance. Jesus heals on the sabbath and the Pharisees, those devoted protectors of the Law, would have him thrown out or silenced completely.3 By using the example of David and his men entering the temple to eat the consecrated bread as an example, Jesus’ response is poignantly simple: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”4 In a sense, sabbath had become the object of worship for the Pharisees and portions of the Jewish population. Whereas YHWH created the sabbath as a both a form of rest for his weary and already-redeemed-people and as the time set aside for worship, the religious leaders had placed sabbath above all other principles thereby inadvertently establishing yet another form of religious oppression.
Liturgical Time – Church Calendar
Even in her earliest centuries, the nascent church was already forming a calendar according to a different set of events and guiding principles. The measurement tool was no longer chronos (minutes, days, years, etc.)—though it certainly involved this method. The new standard for measuring time was the life and work of Jesus. The early Church understood Easter to be the central event in history, the hinge upon which the whole of history turns; and it certainly became the center of the liturgical year.5 Placed at the center of the calendar, Easter thus gave meaning and placement to every other liturgical day, feast, fast, and rite.6 Beginning with the season of Advent, the Christian calendar traverses through the story of Jesus as follows: Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost, Ordinary Time. This takes place every year. Without question, without fail. A glaring omission from any conversation about Easter or liturgical time is Holy Saturday. As Christians, particularly evangelically shaped Christians—for better or for worse—in the West, we are quick to focus on Cross and Resurrection. What about the beautiful tension that is Holy Saturday? YHWH rested on the seventh day of the week after his work of creation was completed. Jesus rests in the tomb after his work upon the cross is complete. The pathway from cross to empty tomb, from throne to resurrection is through sabbath, through rest.
The Orthodox Church highlights another significant Saturday in the liturgical calendar that receives little to no recognition from Protestants and other liturgical traditions. Lazarus Saturday is the day before Palm Sunday on which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead en route to the palms, the Last Supper, the cross, and the empty tomb. The significance and meaning that Lazarus Saturday has on Palm Sunday is astounding and yet it is never mentioned—or at least rarely so—by those outside of the Orthodox Church. For it was on this sabbath that another body lay resting in the tomb, another family mourned their loss, another bit of proof that death affects us all. And yet Jesus comes to Mary and Martha, he announces himself as the Resurrection and the Life, and he raises Lazarus on the sabbath. There was to be no work on the sabbath and yet Jesus does what no one else can: he brings the dead back to life. It is then, and only then, that he rides into Jerusalem humbly triumphant.
Liturgical Time – Weekly and Daily Office
Christians do not simply tell time on an annual basis. The Christian life is centered around two smaller circles, as well: the weekly and daily offices. Central to the week is Sunday worship; every Sunday is a little Easter and calls to memory the victory and joy that is the Resurrection.7 The passage of time is not from one Sunday to the next—that is shallow Christianity, a hollow and vacuous version of what we know to be true. This is a short excerpt on the meaning and function of Sunday in the Christian calendar:
Sunday is the first day of the week and the first day of creation. It is the day of the Sun of Righteousness, given that Saturday is the sabbath, the day of rest. It is the third day, because it was on Sunday that our Lord was raised from the grave, having conquered sin, death, and the devil; having “trampled down death by death,” he was raised to new life, echoing his bold claim from earlier in John’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Finally, Sunday is the eighth day because the resurrection changes everything: it is the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation. It is the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in the here and now. John marks his Gospel according to days, and the Sunday of the resurrection is both a continuation of the first day but also its fulfillment.8
This is taken from the picture given by John’s Gospel and it represents the uniqueness of Sunday. To arrive at each Sunday, however, one must first go through sabbath rest.
Similarly, the Daily Office has Sunday as its referent. That is, Sunday worship is the blueprint for observing Morning and Evening Prayer (or Matins, Lauds, Vespers, etc. if you are particularly adventurous). Embedded deep within the rhythm of daily prayer are pauses, periods of silence, and rest. The very act of praying throughout the day can be seen as a mini-sabbath or rest because it represents the cessation of all other activity in order to devote oneself to prayer, meditation, and worship.
Formed By Sabbath
The church calendar and the Christian life should be informed and shaped by both the joy of Easter Sunday and the rest of Holy Saturday. It is in fact the connection between the two that leads to participation, to worship, to whole and holy living because at the core, liturgical time is about participation in the life and love of Christ. The early church told time differently than the Romans and oppressive emperors surrounding them; indeed their timekeeping may be viewed by some as subversive, counter-cultural, and resistant, but that would be putting the cart in front of the horse. Just as the Eucharist may have a political element to it, or can be understood through political or social lenses from time to time, the point of the Eucharist is not first and foremost political. It is worship. Nothing more, nothing less. Liturgical time is participation before it can be considered resistance.
The question, Christian, then becomes simple: how do you tell time? In what narrative of the world are you actively participating? Our cue must be taken from our worship practices, from the liturgies that form and shape us, from the deep structures and rhythms of our week and calendar. We, as Christians, are a people of worship but can we truly claim to be a people of sabbath? Our weekends are filled to overflowing with sporting events, yardwork, chores, duties, tasks, and more. We set aside an hour, perhaps two at most, for Sunday worship but very little more than that. Observing sabbath, however, shows that the rat race of life does not win in God’s kingdom, that timekeeping is done on another level, and that we can afford to give over our time in worship to God even if the rest of the world thinks us foolish, irresponsible, or different.
Sabbath is a time of pregnant pauses, anxious awaiting, and emotion-filled worship. It is the gift of time back to the Timekeeper because the day given to prayer is one less day afforded for work and monetary/economic gain. It represents an alignment or re-ordering of values according to heavenly principles rather than earthly standards.
1 Exodus 20:8
2 Exodus 7:16
3 N T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, North American ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 432.
4 Mark 2:27-28
5 Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1991), 1.
6 An Orthodox priest once commented to me that he could fill out the whole of the liturgical calendar if he was given but one date: Easter. The knowledge of Easter’s date in any given year would allow him to fill out the rest of the calendar because liturgical time is consistent, it is measured, and it is formative.
7 Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 13-14, 70.
8 This was originally written in a post for The Living Church. The whole piece can be accessed here: http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2015/11/20/learning-to-tell-time-liturgically/