God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2.3)
I recently bumped into an artist friend who complained, “I’m totally exhausted!” Just to needle him, I said, “God, I hope not. How will you work if you’ve got nothing left?” It took a moment to sink in and then he rallied. “Trust me, there’s plenty left. I’m just tired and need to take a break.” Not be outdone by my jab at his grammar, he added, “You look like you could use a break yourself!” With Lent winding down, I started thinking about this tired-exhausted-need-a-break business.
This year’s journey is my richest yet. Having traveled beside many of you, I suspect you feel the same. But I must confess at this stage, I’m not only tired. I’m exhausted. My reserves are depleted. I’m now wholly reliant on the One Who calls us to the desert—which is Lent’s overall purpose, and I get that. Yet cognitive recognition is no anecdote for decreased attention span and mental fatigue. Yesterday, without conscious thought, I told God, “I’ve got nothing left to get through next week, let alone Holy Week’s emotional rollercoaster ride.” I let go a big sigh, and before I could embellish, in the recesses of my being I heard Him say, “So tomorrow you’ll rest. Even I rest on occasion. You think you shouldn’t?” (For reasons I can’t fathom, God often replies to my whines in the voice of a Yiddish watchmaker.)
For the Moment
When the Creation narrative reaches Genesis 2.3—“God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done”—we’re prone to think, “Hence the Sabbath,” and scoot on. Few of us consider the implications of what we’ve just read. God spends six “days” speaking the universe into existence, summoning plants and animals to life, and fashioning His surrogate creature by hand. He gets everything up and running—stars and planets in orbit, rivers flowing, grass growing, etc.—and instead of becoming preoccupied with His creation, or monitoring its early progress, He takes Day Seven off. He lets everything go so He can rest. What’s most peculiar here is God’s making this, Creation’s least notable day, a holy one. It’s the first in an endless series of classic reversals, when what God does is stridently counterintuitive to what seems logical to us.
After we wrestle with that for a bit, we still need to solve the paradox of God’s exhaustion. Six days of tireless, infinitely detailed and diverse creativity refutes any suggestion He’s out of ideas and energy. Yet He stops. He’s exhausted, though not in the sense of being completely emptied of imagination and power. For the moment, His work is finished, His world perfect. There’s nothing left to be done, no need to continue just to prove He can. What’s more, He knows this perfection won’t last. The Tempter lurks in the Garden, waiting to captivate the Human’s idle thoughts, after which the struggle to prevent both from undoing God's work will commence. Because the world is perfect, because it’s complete, because there’s nothing He needs to do for the moment, God takes His rest. Day Seven is His finest day, and that makes it holy.
Keep It Holy
Excess or neglect—usually a combination of the two—makes us tired. This holds true on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Moderation and mindfulness remedy tiredness. We pull back on some things so we can attend to others. Exhaustion is different. It comes from a different place and requires different treatment. When we’re exhausted, it’s because we’ve done all we can for the moment. The empty fatigue signals it’s time to let go and rest. Our world may not be perfect and our work may be incomplete, but knowing there’s nothing more we can do for now tells us now is the perfect time to do nothing. There’s no gain in sacrificing rest to admire our work or keep close tabs on people who can manage without us. Besides, trying to plow through our exhaustion now renders us useless later. It’s time to rest.
Rest doesn’t come easily to us, though it should. From what we see in Genesis, it comes easily to God. His work reaches a stopping point and He rests. Our resistance to rest derives from insecurities, fears, and other feelings that are alien to Him. We deal with pride; we’re too essential to care for ourselves. At the spectrum’s other end, we constantly need to be needed to maintain our sense of worth. We worry how we’ll be regarded if we withdraw for a respite. We fear living with guilt if something we might have prevented occurs in our absence. And on and on we go, whining with doubt and impatience, falling shorter by the day, failing others and us by trying to give what we no longer have. It’s time to rest.
Judaism teaches rest is worship, reserving the seventh day of each week as a holy day of obedience to the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20.8) Early Christians adopted the first day of the week as the “new Sabbath,” which combined commemoration of Christ’s resurrection with the Jewish day of rest. The “rest” component of Sunday worship hasn’t stuck; since we’re no longer under the Law, I’m not persuaded it should. Nonetheless, we should honor the principle of rest as worship by calling Day Seven any time we’re exhausted. Our Sabbath may last an hour, a day, a week, or year. Regardless of duration, we set time aside time to rest and keep it holy. We let worries and fears go until we’re replenished and ready to resume work. In Mark 2.27, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God made Day Seven a holy day of rest to remind us we need to rest.
When we’ve exhausted our capabilities, it’s time to rest. (Van Gogh: Noon: Rest from Work (after Millet); c. 1890)
Postscript: Sabbath Song
A restful jazz meditation on the Sabbath by Neville Peter.