Mat. 11:16-19; 25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Rest for your souls.
When Jesus invites us to his “rest” he is probably talking about more than a day off, but that’s a good place to start. The day off on the seventh day, the Sabbath, is at the core of Jewish practice and identity. Down through the ages Jewish observance of the Sabbath has acquired a very rich overlay of ritual practice and lore.
To make our way toward a Christian understanding of Sabbath we should start with the Jewish Sabbath, in which it is rooted. And here I have to admit to some “holy envy”. I’m not sure where I heard the expression first, but “holy envy” is envy of the practices of another religion. And there is much to admire in the Jewish observance of Sabbath. Three things come to mind that we might learn from: 1) the Sabbath is defined, 2) the Sabbath is celebratory, and 3) the Sabbath is personified.
The Sabbath is clearly defined. The beginning and end of Shabbat (sundown to sundown) is timed to the minute. If you’re in Jerusalem sirens and shofars (ram’s horns) mark the beginning of Sabbath on Friday evening. And, for the observant, a very definite shift in activities, mainly no work, rest from labors. The particulars vary depending on the particular branch of Judaism, and some of the minutiae can strike us as odd or even contradictory. For some very Orthodox Jews, for example, it is forbidden to push a button or flip a switch even on a labor-saving device. The effect of the Sabbath restrictions, however, is to be a constant reminder that this is special time, set apart, different from the rest of the week. It’s not just business as usual.
We’ve tried to capture a bit of this demarcation of time in our weekly rhythm. Our Sabbath begins with a special prayer at the end of Evening Prayer on Sunday. It ends with a special prayer at the beginning of Morning Prayer on Tuesday. Between these two points in time we try to not get caught up in work.
The Jewish Sabbath is defined. It is also celebratory. It’s not just the absence of work, it’s the presence of festivity. A time for parties, family get-togethers. A time to “eat, drink and be merry”, as Ecclesiastes puts it. A time to get dressed up—you should see the silk coats and fur hats of the Orthodox men on their way to the Western Wall! A time for singing and dancing and making love. The Puritans got it all backwards with their dour and joyless zeal.
Jewish Sabbath is defined, it is festive and it is personified. Shabbat is a bride, a queen. During the Friday service of welcoming the Sabbath (Kabbalat Shabbat) there is a point at which the congregation turn around to face the main entrance and all bow to the Sabbath bride as she makes her procession into the room. It’s one of those liturgical gestures that can send chills up the spine. It happens during the singing of Lekhah dodi, “come, by beloved”. Lekhah dodi, “come, by beloved” is a 16th century song that borrows imagery from the Song of Songs and Isaiah. The text is from Safed in Northern Galilee, which was (and still is) a center of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah—which suggests a mystical dimension of the Sabbath as bride.
The bridal imagery of the Sabbath in Jewish practice invites a Christian parallel. If not a bride, well then, a bridegroom. Christ as Bridegroom (he calls himself Bridegroom); Christ as Sabbath. Christ as True Sabbath. Rest on the seventh day is a Sabbath of time; rest in Christ would be another kind of Sabbath. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” “Our souls are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” Words of St. Augustine. Christ as Sabbath rest.
The Letter to the Colossians speaks of the Jewish festivals and celebrations of the new moon and Sabbaths as foreshadowing Christ. “These are a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” [Col. 2:16-17] The substance of Sabbath, we could say, is Christ; the substance of the Sabbath rest is Christ himself. A Sabbath not of time, but—what shall we call it?—existential Sabbath? A personal Sabbath? (Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Sabbath?) Mystical? Words begin to fail. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” “In him we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28] In him we live and move and have our being—and our true Sabbath rest.
If Jesus is True Sabbath, the one in whom we find our rest, this Sabbath is not limited to the seventh day, but is always present to us. We need a day off and we do well to set it apart in some clearly defined way; and we would do well to capture some of the festive quality of Jewish Shabbat. A little “holy envy” is a good thing. But we are offered yet another dimension of Sabbath in the person of Christ himself. And this dimension of Sabbath is with us always: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” [Mat. 28:20] We may enter his rest at any time and in any place.
I’ll close with two short prayers: the brothers’ prayer for the beginning of Sabbath, which we will pray later this afternoon, and our prayer for the end of Sabbath, which we will pray at 6:00 Tuesday morning.
Gracious God, you have sanctified days of rest for all your people and have called us to bear witness before the world to the graciousness and wisdom of the Sabbath. Be with us now as we lay aside our work; hallow our rest, our recreation and our leisure, and bring us to the new week refreshed and restored in body, mind and spirit. We ask this in the name of Jesus, in whom we find our true rest and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
God of all creation, we thank you for the gift of our Sabbath rest; keep company with us as we take up our work again, and help us to know that, even in the midst of busy lives, our hearts rest in you; we ask these things in the name of Jesus, who is himself our True Sabbath, and who abides with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.
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