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Every day is like Sunday?

Simon Parke

To the chagrin of many Christians and trade unionists, the government will allow more Sunday trading during the Olympics. Jurgen Moltmann argues that the preservation of the Sabbath is an important part of our understanding of our own creation.


FMoltmann1.jpgAccording to the first creation account in the Bible, the creation of the world ends on the sixth day: 'And God looked at everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good' (1.31). And yet 'on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done' (Gen. 2.2).1 What did God add to his finished creation on the seventh day? What was still lacking in his creation? What did its completion consist of?

The answer is a surprising one: the completion of the creation consists of the coming to rest of its creator, and from the creator's rest spring the blessing and sanctification of the seventh day of creation. According to Exodus 31.17, God 'was refreshed' - he 'heaved a sigh of satisfaction.' The creator withdraws himself and frees himself from his work; he detaches himself from what he has made and leaves what he has created in peace. The first step in this detachment is that 'God looked at everything he had made' (Gen. 1.31). In order to look at it he needed space, for seeing is a remote sense. The second step in the detachment was that 'God rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done' (2.2). This resting in himself brings peace to what he has created.

This is a strange way of 'completing' his works. Today, when we retire, start drawing a pension and have to leave our job or professional life, we ask: Are we still of any use? What will I do now? We talk about 'active retirement' or 'happy non-retirement'. One surely can't just stop going! One surely doesn't belong on the scrap heap of ageing, passive, useless senior citizens!

Christians especially feel that they are 'always at the service' of an unceasingly active God. Deus non est otiosus, ran a mediaeval saying - 'God is never unoccupied'. So we have become what Goethe describes Faust as being, 'a monster without rest and peace.' To go faster is not a problem, but to leave everything aside certainly is, and to reduce our speed is almost impossible. Yet 'power lies only in rest'.

On the seventh day of creation, God encounters us in a very different way: he is at leisure, so to speak. God comes to rest. God detaches himself from his works. God puts aside his being as creator. God comes to himself again, after he had creatively gone out of himself. As their creator, God is wholly with those he has created, but now he detaches himself from them and becomes free from his works and withdraws into himself. God comes to rest in the face of all those he has created, and with his being, resting within itself, is wholly present among them. His pleasure in his creation becomes the joy of those he has created. God is not just active, he is passive too; not only creative but also at rest; not just speaking but also listening; not merely giving but also receiving. In the beginning God created, and at the end God rests: that is the marvellous divine dialectic.

Perhaps artists can understand best how one can 'complete' a creation by coming to rest. A painter puts his whole soul into his painting. When it is finished, he stands back in order to come to himself again and to let his work of art make its own way. Without this withdrawal, no work of art is ever 'completed'.

Only in one respect was the physico-theology (a theology based on the constitution of the natural world) of the 18th-century Enlightenment (Deism) represented by the notion of God as the 'watchmaker' behind the machinery of the world who became unemployed after the creation of this law-regulated world because he had arranged everything splendidly and no longer could intervene without contradicting himself. In another respect, this physico-theology was part of the baroque 'theology of glory', which perceives and extols the creator of the world in his Sabbath rest.2 The much-abused Deism was also Sabbath theology.

'So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.' What he blesses, he endorses. His blessing gives self-confidence and strength. God blesses his living things with fertility (Gen. 1.22, 28). But on the Sabbath what he blesses is not any living thing; he blesses a time, the seventh day of creation. This is remarkable, because time is not an object. Time is invisible and flowing; we cannot hold time fast. How ought we to understand this divine blessing of a time for all God's creatures? God blesses this day not through an action but through his rest, not through something he does but through his being. He blesses those he has created through this day of his resting presence on which they too are supposed to arrive at their rest.

'Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless within us until they find rest in Thee', wrote Augustine.3 This restlessness is not limited to human beings; it torments all living things which want to live and have to die. Where is the harbour of happiness, the home of identity, the place of rest? It is not far off in 'the seventh heaven'; nor is it in the innermost part of the human being-in the seventh chamber of 'the castle of his soul', as the mystics Theresa of Avila and Thomas Merton have described. It is on earth and easy to find in time: on the Sabbath day the eternal one is present in his rest, and those he has created can find him if they themselves come to rest.


God's first blessing was not conferred on his chosen people, nor on the promised land, but on the universal Sabbath day of creation. This was the way Israel understood the Sabbath from the time of the Babylonian exile. God dwells in time.4 The Sabbath is the Jewish cathedral.5 On the Sabbath, time and eternity touch. The Sabbath is the mystical moment, the 'present' of eternity.

That means that the weekly day of rest is not merely a making-present of creation in the beginning; it is also a making-present of redemption at the end, a time of remembrance and a time of hope. Beginning and end are present on this day on which time and eternity touch. On the Sabbath, transitory time is abolished, the time of death is forgotten and the time of eternal life is perceived. It is the liberating interruption of transient time through eternity.6 And if we then look at the weekly succession of Sabbath days, we perceive a rhythm that belongs to eternity: the times oscillate in the dance of eternity. On every Sabbath, time is born anew.

The Sabbath is not only the day of rest but also the day of no longer intervening in nature. In the Sabbath stillness, people no longer intervene in the natural environment through their work. With this the view of the world changes: things are no longer valued for their utility and practical value. They are perceived with astonishment in their value as being. Things appear as they are in themselves. With this, the environment as it is related to human beings becomes the world as it proceeded from God's creation. There is no proper understanding of the world as God's creation without this way of perceiving it in the Sabbath stillness.7 In pure pleasure, without reason or purpose, things display their creaturely beauty. The world becomes more lovable when we no longer weigh it up according to the criteria of utility and practical value. We shall then also become aware of ourselves-body and soul-as God's creations and as his image on earth. We are then entirely without utility-we are quite useless-but we are wholly there and know ourselves in the splendour of the shining face of God. The fearful questions about the meaning of life and our usefulness vanish: existence itself is good, and to be here is glorious. On the feast day of creation, we come to ourselves and to God, who surrounds us from every side. But we cannot purchase the peace of this day; it cannot be earned. We must seek this leisure, and then it will suddenly find us.

The Jewish Sabbath corresponds to God's creation Sabbath and as the 'seventh day' is a day of ending and completing. It is the day of rest after six working days. It is like the quiet evening after a laborious day. When 'Queen Sabbath' enters Jewish houses, a completed week is crowned. The Jewish Sabbath with its rituals teaches us joy in existence and the wisdom of age.

Consequently, this celebration is full of gratitude for the works of creation and for safe-keeping in the history of the world and is an echo of the creator's judgment: 'And God saw that it was good.' And yet, or just because of that, hidden in the Sabbath lies a hope that embraces the world. All the days of creation have an evening, when night falls, but the seventh day knows no night.

It is like a day without end, and because of that it points beyond itself to the day of God's coming, the day when he will come to dwell eternally in his creation. That is why the rabbis often said, 'If Israel were only to keep one single Sabbath, the Messiah would come immediately'. The experiences of the Sabbath were always used as a way of describing the happiness of the messianic time.

The Jewish wisdom of the Sabbath is the completing: 'All's well that ends well.' That is why the origin of the world is not celebrated on the first day of creation, as it is in the creation myths of the different peoples, but on the last.8

The Christian churches, on the other hand, moved the weekly feast day from the seventh day to the first. That has a profound symbolic meaning. It celebrates the feast of Christ's resurrection on 'the eighth day', as it was called in the patristic church-that is, on the day following the Jewish Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath passes over into the Christian Sunday: out of the resting comes the resurrection jubilation; out of the end, the new beginning. The Christian Sunday too is a feast of creation. It is with Christ's resurrection the beginning of the new creation of all things. It is the consummation towards which creation at the beginning points. That is why the first creation account is read as part of the Catholic liturgy for the Easter vigil. The whole creation is drawn into the happening of the resurrection, which begins with Christ. With this the Christian Sunday becomes entirely 'the feast of the beginning'.9 Franz Rosenzweig characterized the Christian very well from Jewish eyes: 'The Christian is the eternal beginner; completion is not for him: all's well that begins well. That is the eternal youth of the Christian; every Christian lives his Christianity every day as though it were the first.'10

1  I draw gratefully on Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), and Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William W. Hallo (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971).
2  See Wolfgang Philipp, Das Werden der Aufklärung in theologiegeschichtlicher Sicht (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1957).
3  Martin Grabmann, Die Grundgedanken des heiligen Augustinus über Seele und Gott (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftlich, 1957). For the discussion about the restriction to the soul, see Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press and London: SCM Press, 1997), 70-88.
4. Dietrich Ritschl, Bildersprache und Argumente: Theologische Aufsätze (Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 2008), 49-59.
5. A. Heschel, The Sabbath, 8.
6  Jürgen Moltmann, 'What Is Time? And How Do We Experience It?' in dialogue 39, no. 1 (2000): 27-35.
7  Today some people associate this way of looking at things with meditative contemplation, but as Plato said, it is the view which comes from astonishment. In pure theory we perceive in order to participate, not in order to dominate, exploit or utilize. We
perceive things with our eyes, not with our grasping hand. We let things be what they are and do not claim them for ourselves.
8  Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, part III, book 1.
9  For more detail, see Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: The Gifford Lectures 1984-85, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper and London: SCM Press, 1985), 292-96.
10. Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, 359.

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