Every day is like Sunday?
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
According 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.
THE MYSTICAL MOMENT
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
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
LAST SHALL BE FIRST
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 &
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.
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
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.