By George Handley. Cross-posted at Home Waters.
The LDS Church has recently rolled out new training for members about the central importance of observance of the Sabbath Day and of the sacrament. My thoughts here are inspired by this training, which I find to be wonderfully focused on the fundamental covenant we make at baptism and which we renew each Sunday to take upon ourselves the name of Christ and to keep his commandments.
We are to keep the Sabbath Day holy, but it is also clear that setting this day apart is not an end but a means to an end. And what is that end? If we are living with integrity and Christian purpose throughout the week, the end result is that the entire week becomes holy. We become sanctified by our willingness to bear Christ’s name every day and this enables us to live in his light. But it is a good question to ask: what does it mean to make a day holy? We might say that it is a way of making the secular sacred, since a “day” is a measure of temporality we use in the profane world, in the profane calendar of time that we have created. That is almost the point, but it seems to ignore the fact that those of us who view the Sabbath, either on a Saturday or a Sunday, as a holy day apart from the others, do so in remembrance of God’s creation of the world. That is, although in English at least our days carry names drawn from astronomy and pagan cultures and our calendar is shaped by a mix of sacred and secular sources, our calendar is nevertheless a way of measuring that at least echoes an original sacred purpose. In other words, keeping the Sabbath Day holy is a method for restoring the secular to its original sacred purposes.
So what does the Sabbath Day have to do with the creation? Why is it that God structures time into seven creative periods, the last one being the day of rest? Does it imply that the work of creating the world, like the mundane work you and I might do to make a living, is perhaps dirty and messy and profane and unworthy of the holy day? If we follow the logic of the end purpose of the Sabbath Day, it would seem to be the opposite. The purpose of the day of rest is to reflect on the entirety of the creation and to see it all as sacred and holy. Sure, the creation was a messy, muddy, and earthly affair. It would be easy to imagine how ugly such messiness might seem in comparison to God’s rest in heaven. But just as we must learn to rest from our labors and reflect on the whole of our lives in order to be better understand our daily role in the unfolding purposes of God, so did God (and perhaps all of us together to the degree that we were involved in this process) rest and have a chance to understand and appreciate the magnificence of the whole of it. Indeed, although God creates in stages and moves from simpler to more complex forms of life, he consistently pronounces everything that he creates—from the earth itself to plant and animal life—as “good.” Although we alone are created in his image and we alone are daughters and sons of heavenly parents in all of the creation, it is also clear that there is a spiritual continuum between the most simple forms of life and our human lives. The earth was created for us, but not for us to exploit or misuse. It was created to allow us and all other living forms the chance to flourish, to enjoy posterity, and to learn to live together. After all, God did not command human beings alone to “multiply and replenish.” In Genesis 1, at the end of the fifth day of creation, we read:
21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
In my view, no believer in this account of the creation can afford to deny the holiness of the creation, the inherently sacred worth of every living thing, of the planet itself. Nor can we afford to remain indifferent to the earth’s destruction and to the onslaught of extinction we have caused. Such remembrance of our stewardship appears to be one of the chief purposes of the Sabbath Day. It is a day to remember the creation, to bring to our minds our connection to the entirety of life, and to be filled with appreciation for the holiness of it all.
I do not believe it is a coincidence that one of the revelations given to Joseph Smith that most directly addresses the Sabbath Day and the importance of its observance also happens to be one of the revelations that most directly describes our stewardship of the earth and all of its bounty. I am speaking of section 59 of the Doctrine and Covenants where we learn that the Sabbath Day and its proper observance is intended to keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (v. 9). It is clear that the “world” here refers not to the physical environment but to the ways of sinfulness. Indeed, it is a chance to remember and restore the sacred purposes of our bodies and the body of the earth. Just as the Sabbath Day is intended to restore holiness to the entire week, a fast is not intended to teach us the uncleanness of the body’s needs but rather to restore holiness to the body itself. The Lord tells us to fast and prepare food “with a singleness of heart” (v. 13) and “with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances” (v. 15) so “that thy joy might be perfect” (v. 13) Indeed, he tells us that all things were given to us for the purpose of our fullest joy, which he describes as a kind of spiritual and aesthetic pleasure we find in the life of the body and in appreciative contemplation of the beauties of this earth.
He is quick to remind us, however, the terms on which such joy is based, especially the terms of our proper relationship to the creation:
18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;
19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.
20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.
21 And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.
We cannot find verses in the Bible that so clearly describe the principle of earthly stewardship. So it is worth asking ourselves, what are we doing with these verses? What difference do they make in our Christian lives? How does our observation of the Sabbath help us to remember our responsibilities to the creation and renew our commitments to restore it to its holy and healthy purposes? How can we avoid the sin of ingratitude and be more attentive and caring of what we have been given in the forms of life all around us?
In all of our needed concern for what is appropriate for Sabbath Day observance, I hope we can consider the value for individuals and families to take some time to walk some place beautiful, even if only in our own neighborhood, and to talk of and acknowledge the goodness of the earth. It appears to be an offense to the Lord to not notice his gifts. It is a good day to enjoy meals with “singleness of heart,” which I take to mean with an eye to the gift it is to eat, to enjoy good-tasting food, and to do so in the company of family and friends. This is one way to make the bread we break at home a little more like the holy sacrament. That should be our goal. We should find on the Sabbath sacred occasions to consider the blessings of physical life, of human relationships, and of our relationship to this remarkable creation. There are not words sufficient to describe the magnitude of the gift of all life, but we must still try. It is hard to remember how holy each day is on this planet and in these bodies, but there is no better time to try than on the Sabbath Day.