To experience the celebration of Sabbath in Israel is to know that you are free from work because everyone else around you is. We have lost collective experiences of time – rituals and celebrations – so that each one of us is compelled to create our own reality that must compete with others. This individualisation of time has severely loosened our ties one to another and spoiled what it means to enjoy a shared day of rest. Sabbath also has wider relevance because our week should be punctuated by moments of grace, where we give attention to the re-creation of our lives and relationships. The journalist Madeleine Bunting, referring to the debate about environmental sustainability, has asked whether the next related question is about human sustainability: are we squeezing our lives into moulds that will irreversibly spoil human relationships and personal creativity? It is a valid question.
The only effective way to tackle this is through a community of resistance. The bonds of rest and recreation should form a coherent witness of the Church but I know in my heart that we have failed at this counter-cultural imperative. We are as busy, if not more so, than the rest of society. Sabbath prefigures the divine rest that we shall inherit. By depriving ourselves of it we do vandalism to the hope set before us. We also ensure that people’s horizons stretch no further than the next day’s work, an incremental yet visionless way of life that is hostile to the exploration of faith.
Resistance demands courage. If we allow the expectations of other people to dictate to us we shall never break out of these insidious habits. Many people feel so trapped by the culture of work that even the smallest acts of resistance are beyond their reach. This is all the more reason for those who have the power to act to do so, for it is only in community that we can reshape the culture.
Sabbath rest is one of the most tangible indicators of the character of God and the contingency of human beings that society can embody. The contempt with which we treat it may be one of the deepest failings of our generation.