Weekly Reflection - "The Sabbaths"

7 May 2021

““The Sabbaths,” said Polish-born rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “are our great cathedrals.” On the Sabbath, everything that is unessential bows to that which endures. On the Sabbath, one is not meant to do, but to be” Quote from Rachel Held Evans (1981-2019).

Having worked in our beloved cathedral for five years and entering the nineteenth year of ordained ministry I begin my first three-month sabbatical this week. This is three months of space in which to use and value time differently. The Jewish people place a great emphasis on time and particularly on the Sabbath, from which comes the concept of the sabbatical. There are many rituals around the sabbath, in preparation for it and to mark its ending. The day itself (the seventh day, illustrated in the story of God resting after 6 days of creating all things in Genesis) is a day when work must not be undertaken. Many Jews continue to keep the sabbath as holy in this way.

Yet in this modern age, even the vicar can be found popping into the supermarket after church for that forgotten pint of milk, or to buy plimsoles for the child whose feet seem to have grown miraculously overnight. In the digital age work drops into email boxes at home, out of hours and where we all used to wait patiently for 7-10 days for a reply to a letter, we start to feel anxious and frustrated after 48 hours without a response to a text or an email. How on earth can I take 3 months of this sabbath rest when most of us cannot even take a single day a week?

I think that a sabbatical reminds not just the person taking it, but the whole community around them, of the truths of the life of the children of God: that we do not and cannot do and be all things to all people and neither can we expect that of others. We are called to see each other as God’s children and …. as the Rabbi said ‘The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals’, they endure and transcend us. They draw us nearer to the God who loves us for who we are not what we do. When we gather on our sabbath each week, in the cathedral, it is never about what we are doing, it is always about what God is doing in the time that we spend together in God’s presence. We just have to be there. If you’ve heard the saying “couldn’t see the wood for the trees” it’s a bit like that, if we fail to see our great cathedral, how can we perceive the God who created it and loves it.

I am going to spend three months in another great cathedral, that which is not a physical space, but which is a space in time, which I am setting aside to be drawn nearer to God. I can do it, despite my bad habits, because I am setting it aside and I have prepared. It is a choice I gladly make to put things down, do less and be more. I can do this, in part, because of the experience of sabbath given me by the church in my lifetime, and more recently by Wakefield Cathedral, because I know that when I, when we, set time aside for God, God does not disappoint.

During these three months, you will continue to meet as God’s children to be in his presence through word and sacrament each Sunday in the cathedral. God willing you may even see one another smile with lips and teeth… and even sing God’s praises together. My prayer for us is, that in our cathedrals, we will be reminded that it isn’t what we do, but what God does, that matters. That we will together remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy.

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