Sabbath, or Shabbat in Hebrew, is the seventh day of the week, our Saturday. Sometimes we call Sunday the sabbath, but that overturns an ancient tradition preserved in our Prayer Book. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the last day of the week is holy because, according to Genesis 1, on it God rested from the work of creation. So, in order to acknowledge and honor all that God has given us in creation, we too are called to rest from our work.
Rest is not the opposite of work. It is taking the time to engage again with the deeper work that undergirds what we do day-to-day.
That is almost impossible on our hectic Saturdays, but it is important to remember that, for the first Christians, Sunday was especially holy because it was on the first day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead. He rested in the tomb on the sabbath and inaugurated a new age of justice and mercy on the first Easter Sunday. What that means is that for the ancient church, Sunday was just the opposite of a day of rest. It was a day of renewed action as followers of our crucified and risen Lord. That is why our worship on Sunday is never a retreat from the world, but an engagement with it. We come together to offer ourselves as a body to God, to be God’s instrument in the world. (For a sense of how our tradition reflects the movement from cross through sabbath to resurrection and mission, take a look at the weekly prayers for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Book of Common Prayer, pages 98-99.)
I have Sabbath on my mind, not only because it is the theme of this edition of Connections, but because I recently returned from a three-month sabbatical. The word “sabbatical” is obviously derived from the word “sabbath.” Historically, a sabbatical was a period of time granted to members of academic faculties to devote themselves more fully to scholarly research than they could while fulfilling their normal teaching and administrative duties. That may not sound like much of a rest! But as a former academic I can tell you that the gift of time to think and write feels like a rest — not just because, as the British say, “a change is a rest,” but because devoting oneself to a deeper understanding of one’s chosen field of knowledge is in itself life-giving, and ultimately enriches one’s teaching and one’s contribution to the health of one’s academic institution.
This casts a new light on the meaning of sabbath in the academy, and, in turn, on the meaning of rest itself. Rest is not the opposite of work. It is taking the time to engage again with the deeper work that undergirds what we do day-to-day. I am sure this understanding of sabbath rest was shaped in part by the Christian doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead, enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed (Book of Common Prayer, p. 96 and elsewhere), and based on 1 Peter 3:18. On the sabbath following his death on the cross, Christ’s body was indeed resting in the tomb, but his soul was passionately dragging the dead into new life. This is precisely what is depicted in the classical icon of Easter. Anticipating his bursting forth from the grave, Jesus is pictured wasting no time offering hope and spiritual rescue to those who have been imprisoned by death. This is work, but work at the deepest possible level. And such work is rest, because it returns us to ourselves.
I’ve been reflecting so far on the meaning of sabbatical in the academic realm. Let’s consider what it means in the life of our clergy, whom we urge to take a sabbatical from time to time. In borrowing the term “sabbatical,” the church is urging its deacons, priests and bishops to put aside their regular work for a while and go deep — indeed, to go deeper than they can in a few days of retreat.
This descent can take many forms. As I developed my plans for my late January to Holy Week sabbatical this year, I wanted to focus on three things: (1) writing poetry; (2) researching American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916), who first developed the concept of Beloved Community, and (3) walking in New York City, where we had lived in the Nineties. (This last goal was made possible by the generosity of the Diocese of New York, which offered Margaret and me an apartment on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.) As it turned out, I was most successful in doing the walking, since, as many of you know, my father died unexpectedly right at the beginning of the sabbatical. He was 96, but none of us was really prepared for this. So, to make a long story short, the tone of our time in New York changed appreciably. I found creative writing difficult, and academic research still more so.
But I was forced to do what I might not have done had I been back at the office in Cincinnati and doing the normal round of Sunday visitations around the diocese. I reflected a lot on my relationship with my parents, and how my childhood and youth continue to shape my discipleship as an adult. I saw how much my life has been intersected by Christ, whose hand has always been outstretched to me, as in the icon of Easter. That was the deep work God assigned me. I don’t disregard how privileged I am in being given the time to do this work. My prayer for all of us is that we will find such time, however it is given.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal serves as Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at email@example.com.