God created the Sabbath to be a day of natural and supernatural rest for his people
Each and every one of us looks forward to the end of the work week. We all have a natural desire for rest and relaxation. St. Augustine once prayed, “…for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 30). God the Father has given his children a desire for both natural and supernatural rest.
But God does not give us a thirst without giving us the means to quench it. This world was created for the sake of man, and God has written into the very order of creation a time, a day, for rest. It is a day that it meant to be a day of natural and supernatural rest, which points us ahead to our eternal rest in the presence of the life-giving love of the Trinity. But how many of us are taking advantage of it?
Another axiom of St. Augustine is: “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” In this column, and its second part, we will begin to see just what St. Augustine has in mind. Now I want to explore the Old Testament background for the Lord’s Day, and the necessity of keeping it holy.
Why an article on this topic? John Paul II said, “It seems more necessary than ever to recover the deep doctrinal foundations underlying the Church’s precept, so that the abiding value of Sunday in the Christian life will be clear to all the faithful” (Dies Domini 6).
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void” (Genesis 1:1-2). In the first six days of creation God goes about taking care of the formlessness and emptiness. The seventh was made for man alone to find rest in God (Genesis 2:2-3). God has thus made his creation, with Adam and Eve as the crown of creation, sacred. Just as the rainbow, circumcision, Passover, the Davidic throne, and the Eucharist would be with later covenants, the Sabbath day is the sign of the first covenant made with man.
There is one important point to note in the opening two chapters of Genesis, which helps to reconcile the two varied creation narratives, and to delve more deeply into the seventh day. The author in chapter one purposefully uses the generic Hebrew word for God, Elohim. In chapter two he uses the personal name for God, Yahweh. One name reflects the infinite power of the creator; the other reflects the covenant love of the Father. When the Sabbath is spoken of the word Yahweh is used, the one that indicates God’s fatherly, personal love.
This makes sense when one understands that a covenant was made by God to establish a sacred family bond between God and the one the covenant is made with. In this case, a sacred family bond is established between God, Adam and Eve. It is on the seventh day that Adam and Eve are made children of God, a state far different from their status with the animals on the sixth day. Yahweh made the Sabbath for his children.
Now we might ask, why the image of resting? God certainly doesn’t need it. He rested so that man would have a divine image to pattern themselves after. “The seventh day is the Sabbath of complete rest, sacred to the Lord” (Exodus 31:15). But what kind of rest? Rest in the Lord, which anticipates the eternal rest, worship and adoration of God in heavenly glory. We are called to rest in the Father’s blessing and holiness. “Creation was fashioned with a view to the Sabbath and therefore for the worship and adoration of God. Worship is inscribed in the order of creation” (CCC 347). So the Sabbath was made for divine rest, worship of God in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:24).
The created order is set aside for sacred purposes. Now creation can be seen as a temple, the garden of Eden as a sanctuary and Adam as a high priest, who is called to worship and offer sacrifice to God.
God entrusted the Sabbath to the Israelites as a sign of his covenant (cf. CCC 2171). The importance and holiness of the Sabbath fall under one of the Ten Commandments. We must understand the commandments from a proper perspective. They are gifts of love given to us by our heavenly Father. These gifts reveal God’s fatherly wisdom and his holy will (cf. CCC 2059). We must have in mind that the covenant is the means by which God fathers his people.
The commandments take on a much greater significance in this light. If they are not united to the covenant, then they can appear as oppressive laws, set down by some impersonal deity. The third of our Father’s heavenly 10 words are, “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8). Also, in Exodus we read, “The Lord said to Moses…‘Take care to keep my Sabbaths, for that is to be the token between you and me throughout the generations, to show that it is I, the Lord, who make you holy…So shall the Israelites observe the Sabbath, keeping it throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant” (31:12-13, 16).
The Sabbath was also the memorial of Israel’s liberation from the hands of the Egyptians (cf. Deuteronomy 5:15, CCC 2170). The Sabbath was to remind them that they had no rest at the hands of the Egyptians, but through the sign of the Sabbath, and God’s merciful love they are to have rest, and that that rest is service to him. It is not the service of a slave but that of a child to a loving Father who deserves their love and adoration. The Sabbath is set apart for the praise of God for his saving actions on their behalf.
This Old Testament background is crucial for us as Christians, so that we might fully understand Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the foremost holy day of obligation. (cf. CCC 2177) The Old is a preparation for the definitive revelation of Christ in the New. What a difference a day can make.