A Sabbath Rest Still Remains

Periodically, as I look up from answering emails to find the morning has vanished or as I finish yet another Zoom meeting, I wonder, “How did I get so busy when I’m supposed to be retired?” It seems as though it’s either feast or famine – days of busyness followed by stretches where nothing much seems to happen, and time hangs heavily. As I write, I am aware of a profound sense of inner disquiet. Figuring out how to maintain relationships and routines in a global pandemic, observing the goings-on south of the border with dismay, and recognizing that we in Canada have our own issues of racism, injustice, and climate change urgency, leave me feeling, as Anne of Green Gables would say, “well in body although considerably rumpled up in spirit.” And now we are facing a further lockdown that will probably last into the middle of December, if not longer. It is hard to cultivate a restful spirit in the middle of an ongoing crisis.

Western culture does not “do” rest very well. It shows up in sayings like “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” “A change is as good as a rest,” my mother would cheerfully announce as she divided up the list of spring-cleaning chores during our school Easter break. When I began working as the Interfaith Chaplain at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre, I discovered there was a policy requiring staff to take their earned vacation time. Apparently, some staff preferred to take their vacation pay and keep working. Certainly, there were financial implications in having to pay out vacations, but management also recognized that it is not healthy for people to be working all the time. The only exceptions were for staff on long-term disability or within five years of retirement, who could bank a portion – but not all – of their vacation.

By contrast, the place and concept of “rest” in both Judaism and Christianity is deeply counter-cultural. It is rooted, of course, in the first biblical account of creation. Having completed the work of creation, having surveyed it, and pronounced it not just good, but very good, God rested and declared holy the time of resting. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3). Humankind, created in the divine image, is therefore to rest as God rested. This sabbath rest is codified in the Ten Commandments and explicitly connected to God’s resting. “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it” (Exodus 20:10-11). Rest is not just a break from work; it is both a gift and a sacred duty and practice.

The place and concept of “rest” is also firmly connected to God’s work of liberation. The Ten Commandments begin with the proclamation, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). This connection is made clear in the second rendering of the commandments: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Having experienced both oppression and liberation, God’s people are to extend the sabbath rest beyond their families to their servants, their livestock, and any foreigners living among them, “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you” (Deut. 5:14). Rest is a matter, not only of recovery from labour, but of justice.

At St. Peter’s we have been using a hymn written specifically to address the spiritual questions and crises of pandemic. Sung to the music of “O Sacred Head,” the final verse reads:

“When undesired sabbaths bring restlessness and gloom;

When loneliness imposes and isolation looms;

The One who never slumbers is presence without end;

The One who watches o’er us will ever be our friend.”

(© Orin Johnson, used with permission.)


Idleness mandated by public health rules is not the same as rest. How may we cultivate a spirit of restfulness in this year when we are required to step back from our usual patterns of relationships and activity? How may we cultivate rest in this time of “undesired sabbaths” and isolation? First, we must acknowledge and lament our losses, those we experience just by living but which are made worse by the pandemic and those unique to this time. We need to affirm that our losses are real and valid, and that grief is a normal response to loss. Lament is necessary for healing to begin. Going deeper, N.T. Wright lays the theological foundation for lament in his slim volume God and the Pandemic (Zondervan, 2020). The God we meet in Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, weeps over the fate of Jerusalem, begs his disciples to watch with him in Gethsemane, and cries out in the agony of abandonment on the cross. Lament is God’s response to the pain of a world in the throes of suffering, sin, and death. Lament is the appropriate response of God’s people to this pandemic. And lament will propel us into action.

There is plenty of good advice about how to cope and even thrive during the pandemic. Eat a healthy diet. Get adequate sleep. Remain physically active. Breathe, especially when feeling anxious and tense. To this I would add rest, which is different than sleeping. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have included the regular praying of Compline in my devotional practice. Orders for Compline may be found in the Book of Common Prayer at page 722 and online https://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/Eucharist.pdf, beginning on page 42. The online preface to the Office observes, “Night is not always peaceful…for when we are sleeping, we are vulnerable. We are vulnerable both to external forces and to the hidden darkness of our own hearts and minds…Night Prayer offers us a daily discipline that enables us to negotiate the ‘dark’ segments of our life journeys.” Compline commends us to God’s protection through the coming night and asks God to grant us rest both as we sleep and at the last in death. Several of the Compline prayers make explicit this connection, not to cause fear but as a promise of new life from “the One who never slumbers.”
The citation that forms the title of this column is from the Letter to the Hebrews: “So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did…Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9-11). This last sentence suggests to me that rest is both a gift for which we pray and a state we must actively seek. Rest must be cultivated and nourished. The spiritual practice of Advent is watchful waiting for God’s promises to be completely fulfilled. We wait in hope for this life and the world to come.

“Gracious God, support us all the day long of this earthly life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, O God, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Night Prayer, ABC Publishing, 2001).

The Rev. Canon Mary Holmen is the former Chaplain at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre. She is an Honorary Assistant and a member of the Pastoral Team at St. Peter’s, Winnipeg, where she serves as Pastor of Parish Caring Ministries.

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