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What Does It Mean to Keep the Sabbath Holy?

Christians aren't bound by Old Testament Sabbath directives, but Jesus never said to forget the Sabbath completely.
What Does It Mean to Keep the Sabbath Holy?

Shabbat candles, braided challah bread, prayer, family time. In Jewish communities, Sabbaths are truly set apart from the rest of the week. (Indeed, the Hebrew word for "holy"—as in, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy"—means, literally, "set apart.") When I practiced Judaism, I would begin my Sabbath with a relaxed Friday night dinner, followed by a day of worship, rest, and celebration. During the Sabbath day, I didn't think about my schoolwork, spend any money, ride in a car, or watch television.

Then I became a Christian. Although I went to church on Sunday mornings, the day never seemed quite as holy. As often as not, I wound up at the shopping mall on Sunday afternoon.

Of course, Christians aren't bound by Old Testament Sabbath directives. Twice in his epistles, the apostle Paul made it clear that Sabbath observance, like other external signs of piety, is insufficient for salvation. As he wrote to the Colossians, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you . . . with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ" (Colossians 2:16-17). And Jesus, when rebuked by the Pharisees for plucking grain from a field on the Sabbath, criticized those who made a fetish of Sabbath observance, insisting, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).

But Jesus never said to forget the Sabbath completely. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, after all! And through the ages Christians have seen the wisdom of devoting one full day to rest and praise. There's an old Puritan saying, "Good Sabbaths make good Christians."

Still, honoring the Sabbath was easier in Puritan New England, where almost everyone took the Sabbath seriously. Shops weren't open on Sundays, businesses closed their doors, and everyone headed to church. Sabbaths are much more difficult in contemporary America. In fact, in a society that values busyness and productivity, observing the Sabbath is downright countercultural.

That's not to say contemporary society doesn't encourage us to relax. To the contrary, most secular women's magazines and television talk shows (not to mention Calgon ads) instruct us to indulge ourselves. While there's nothing wrong with the occasional bubble bath, Calgon days aren't quite the same thing as Sabbath. The key to the Sabbath isn't merely rest. Rather, it's that in our rest we turn our attention to God, whose rest our Sabbath mirrors.

So how, in our hectic world, can we set apart a day truly given over to rest and reverence?

I've found it helpful to mark the beginning of the Sabbath. On Saturday evenings, I gather with friends for an unhurried time of food, fellowship, and prayer.

I also have taken inspiration from the two commandments that govern Jewish Sabbath observance: to not work on the Sabbath, and to be joyful. On Sundays, I don't shop, I don't grade papers, and I don't touch my phone. I even try not to make any plans for the week ahead. Instead, I do things that will give me and God joy. I take long walks with friends. I take extra time for Bible study. And I'm never overly meticulous about these guidelines. On a recent Sunday, my mother, who's quite ill, ran out of her nutritional drinks. Of course I headed to the store and bought her a pack.

The way into Christian Sabbath observance isn't so much about rules as orientation: away from the busyness of the week and towards the Creator who rested. In this we may find a true sense of Shabbat shalom, Sabbath peace.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, Girl Meets God (Algonquin Books), and Mudhouse Sabbath (Paraclete Press), a book that opens with a chapter on Sabbath-keeping.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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