There were three friends, earnest men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men engaged in controversy, as it is written: “Blessed are the peace-makers.” The second chose to visit the sick. Third chose to be quiet in solitude.
Then the first, struggling with quarrelling opponents, found that he could not heal everyone. And worn out, he came to the second who was ministering to the sick, and found him flagging in spirit, and unable to fulfil his purpose. And the two agreed, and went away to see the third who had become a hermit, and told him their troubles. And they asked him to tell them what progress he had made. And he was silent for a little, and poured water into a cup. And he said: “Look at the water.” And it was cloudy. And after a little he said again: “Now look, see how clear the water has become.” And when they leant over the water, they saw their faces as in a glass. And then he said to them: “So it is with the man who lives among men. He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil. But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.16
There are many internal disagreements over the Christian understanding of the Sabbath, the holy day of rest on the seventh day (Saturday). Furthermore, Jewish people tend to have a very strict tradition, but Christians have many practices and sometimes do not seem to celebrate it at all, instead focusing on Sunday (sometimes nearly as strictly as the Jews). In my own tradition, the Orthodox Church, there is a very helpful explanation, I think, rooted in ancient Christian tradition.
The Fourth Commandment (of the Ten) says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8-10). Yet the Gospels are full of stories of Jesus healing on the Sabbath day and doing other “work,” often scandalizing other Jewish teachers.
It would take too much time to examine every passage, so instead I will simply list a few of his justifications:
- “[I]t is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12)
- “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
- “[T]he Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:6).
In (1), Jesus places no restrictions upon doing what is good on the Sabbath. This does not violate the principle of a holy day of rest. The prohibition against work does not include good works.
In (2), Jesus teaches that the Sabbath was made for the good of human beings, not the other way around. Thus, such rest cannot be achieved by sacrificing the true good of oneself or others. Rather, it serves the good of humanity.
In (3), Jesus scandalously claims a divine title for himself. “Son of Man” refers to the fact that he is human—it is a Semitic idiom for “human” (despite what some current biblical commentators may say). “Lord of the Sabbath,” however, refers to his divinity. As the Fourth Commandment states above, the seventh day is “the Sabbath of the Lord your God.” Christ is claiming the highest authority in teaching about the Sabbath. It is his. He made it, and he is its Lord and our God.
This last point is one that no modern Jew would affirm. Indeed, affirming it pretty much makes a person a Christian or at least well on one’s way. Fair enough. I am not interested in an inter-religious debate but rather in examining the Christian understanding of the practice of holy rest.
On the literal side, Christians traditionally have referred to Saturday as the Sabbath, not Sunday (though it, too, is a sacred day of rest). On Saturdays during fasting periods (such as Great Lent and Advent), we lighten our fast on Saturdays for the sake of the Sabbath.
However, the traditional Christian understanding goes much deeper. Christ was crucified on a Friday and rose from the dead on Sunday (hence the sacred significance of Sundays). The day between, Saturday, Christ rested in the tomb. By doing this, Orthodox Christians see a salvific fulfillment of the words: “on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested” (Genesis 2:2). This fulfillment does not decrease Saturday’s significance, but increases and transfigures it. Because Christ rested in the tomb, Saturday is traditionally a special day that Christians remember the departed.
On the spiritual side, however, the Sabbath is not about any particular day of the week at all. Rather, it is a participation in the rest of God by resting from evil. As such it is a goal of all our lives. Moreover, it is the rest that can only come after complete work that is wholly good, and in total, “very good” (Genesis 1:31). As the Epistle to the Hebrews states, “[H]e who has entered his rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10).
Christ’s “violations” of the Sabbath, as it was understood at the time, show us the Sabbath’s true nature. It is a rest from evil, a rest after doing good, the rest of God, and in Jesus Christ, our true rest and peace. Like the monk with the cup of water, it is the difference between a cloudy, disturbed soul and one which is both crystal clear and yet perfectly reflects our true selves back to us “as in a glass.” If we do not take time for solitude to devote ourselves to resting from sin and embracing the virtue that is the root of every good work (such as peace-making and visiting the sick), we cannot have rest. There is no rest but rest in God.
Ironically, the teachers of Jesus’s time were obsessed with making sure others were following their rules for the Sabbath, depriving both themselves and those they taught of true peace and rest. By worrying over whether they or others were violating the Sabbath, they violated the Sabbath, rightly understood. The traditional Christian understanding, at its best, is a corrective to such an outlook, orienting us toward the rest given to us in Jesus Christ, who not only rested on the seventh day, but rose again on the eighth, reopening Paradise for us all and offering us the fruit of the tree of life in the cup of salvation.