Experiencing Sabbath

May 7th, 2011
Photo © estherase | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

There are several debates concerning the Sabbath with respect to days; namely, is the seventh day Sabbath, Saturday, or Sunday? Such a debate is not the concern here. What I am concerned with here is the lived meaning of sabbath.

As we approach any biblical text, what is present to us are forms of life that are tied to lived experiences from which those forms may have their origins. The term Sabbath puts us in contact with the lived experiences of early Israelite communities. In this article, I want to reflect on three dimensions of the lived experience of Sabbath as highlighted in Exodus 20:8-11. They are lived place, lived time, and lived relation to others.


When we think of place we usually think in terms of memories, positive and negative events that have occurred in our lives that bring us to specific places. Many will remember the place of their first kiss. Married couples often reminisce about the place where they made the ultimate commitment to each other, the place of proposal. War veterans remember places of battle; athletes remember places of sweet victory and bitter defeat. Place is an aspect of memory. In fact, one may say that place is one of the grounds of memory. Place, however, is not simply a foundation for memory. Our present is already and always constituted by place. I inhabit a place as I type this article. You are situated in a place as you read this article. Thus, place ties past and present. For, even when we remember a place, we inhabit a place as we remember it.

What does this understanding of place have to do with our understanding of Sabbath? Our churches are regarded as sacred places and spaces in which we worship and praise God. The unique dimension of the Sabbath under the dimensions of place and space is that the Sabbath has its place in time and eternity. Returning to the text, the writer turns us back to the account of creation as the basis for the Sabbath. “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.” In the grand scheme of things the Sabbath has its place in eternity. However, if it has a place in eternity it also has a place in time. This leads me to the second dimension of lived experience.


The Sabbath marks a boundary in time of our lived experience of the world. It marks a distinction between ordinary time (clock time) and sacred time. In ordinary time we spend our lives consuming and doing what it takes to consume (work). However, it is not just consumption, it is also our propensity to control that is a dimension of the fragmentary nature of our daily lives. The Sabbath is a “break” in our daily patterns. The writer of Exodus paints it as both historical (tied to creation) and as sacred moment(s) in time. The Sabbath is thus marked by time as we experience it and not necessarily regulated by clock time (ordinary time). The key here is on sacred moments, that is, moments in our lives that we experience as sacred.

Lived Relation

The Sabbath is a moment of lived relation in which we transcend ourselves and extend ourselves to others as neighbors. The Sabbath places believers in a moral position to free others from bondage. Returning to the text, “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” The text discloses a form of life in which consumption and control are standard practices of living, even for believers. But the Sabbath, as a sacred moment calls believers to stand in a moral position and suspend their practices and reorient themselves and others with the universe.

The text discloses that our relations in our standard practices of living are relationships grounded in utility. In such relationships others are often regarded as objects, things, an “it” to be controlled and serve a particular purpose, namely, to meet our ends and goals. The Sabbath, as sacred moment, is a suspension and return to the doctrine of the Imago Dei. In this moment, we rise above what Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber calls the “I-It” relation into an “I-thou” relation, in which our relationships with one another are grounded in faith in one another, hope for one another, and love of one another. And as the apostle Paul has informed us, the greatest of these is love. Thus the Sabbath, as a sacred moment, is a reorientation and reformation of our human constitution and disposition with the universe. It connects us with eternity where the eternal love of God reigns supreme.

The Sabbath has a place and space in eternity. As a space in eternity, the Sabbath is a boundary marker of time – sacred time. The Sabbath situations believers in a moral position to reorient and reform our relationships from “I-it” to “I-Thou.”

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