Volume 12, Issue 2: Thema
The Sabbath Wedding
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy is A wonderful book, but it has one of those tragic Sabbath scenes common to so many historical children's stories:
At last it was over. In the sunshine outside the church, Almanzo felt better. Boys must not run or laugh or talk loudly on Sunday, but they could talk quietly. . . . After dinner Eliza Jane and Alice did the dishes but Father and Mother and Royal and Almanzo did nothing at all. The whole afternoon they sat in the drowsy warm dining-room. Mother read the Bible and Eliza Jane read a book, and Father's head nodded till he woke with a jerk, and then it began to nod again. Royal fingered the wooden chain that he could not whittle, and Alice looked for a long time out of the window. But Almanzo just sat. He had to. He was not allowed to do anything else, for Sunday was not a day for working or playing. It was a day for going to church and for sitting still.
This is tragic, but our "liberated" response to it has been even more tragic. Many reject this sort of frozen sabbath for the glitz of a mall or schoolwork catch-up or professional gridirons. But idleness or busyness aren't the only options.
Metaphors and pictures lay out a path for us in all of life, and we need a better vision of the Sabbath, if we want to delight God. For example, what sort of background image guides the Wilder family above? At what event must we not laugh, not run, not talk, not play, not work, and "not do anything else"? At a funeral. For the longest time, traditional Protestant expressions of the Sabbath have been expressions of pure funeral behavior.
The Sabbath is supposed to be the best day of the week. It is supposed to give us a glimpse of peace and paradise, a glimpse back to Eden and forward to heaven. It is supposed to capture all the color and harmony of the Christian faith. And notice what we do. We turn to our children and show them a funeral. This is the faith, we say. This is how the gospel inspires you. No wonder they abandon the faith in apathy. Who has ever moved mountains by delighting in a funeral?
Worship itself is a renewal of our bond with God. He calls us to meet Him at worship; we confess our sins; He embraces us in forgiveness, changes us, and sends us forth again to conquer. So how does Scripture picture that bond with God? It's certainly not a funeral. It's a wedding.
"When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine," says the Lord GOD. "I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head" (Ez.16:8,11,12).
Over and over again Scripture describes our covenant with God as a wedding and a marriage (Is. 49:18, 61:10; Jer. 7:34; Jn. 3:29; Eph. 5:23ff., Rev. 19:7, 21:2, etc.). And the whole Sabbath itself, not just the worship, is a perpetual symbol of that marriage covenant (Ex. 31:16).
Notice from these passages the attitudes that are characteristic of a wedding. The "voice of mirth and the voice of gladness" are what identify the "voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride" (Jer. 7:34, 16:9). In looking toward the New Covenant, Isaiah prophesied, "For as a young man marries a virgin, So shall your sons marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So shall your God rejoice over you" (Is. 62:5).
And the joy of the wedding couple is not just some ghostly intellectual thing. It expresses itself bodily, in fine clothing, feasting, and jewels:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Is. 61:10).
Now that's a grand model for understanding the Sabbath. Even Almanzo could delight in that week after week. Who couldn't?
There's nothing new in this. Viewing the Sabbath as a wedding has long been central to the Jewish tradition, but for some reason that message hasn't done well in evangelical/Reformed circles where plenty of business-day and funeral commitments still linger.
Many folks have no problem with accepting a Sabbath, but to them it just means a day of going to church and avoiding employment work. It's not much different than a federal holiday. But if the Sabbath is like a wedding, then it's far more than a simple day off.
But still, how do we begin to better appreciate the Sabbath as a wedding? To start, we can ask what would be appropriate to do in the midst of wedding events-preparation, ceremony, reception, culmination, closings. Some things seem pretty clearly inappropriate on this analogy. I obviously wouldn't catch up on office work or do laundry during a wedding. Similarly, if I'm a guest at a wedding or a participant, I can't imagine breaking away from the ceremony to finish some homework or fix the car or kill some dandelions or listen to a professional sports game. As guests, we go to weddings not for our own pleasures so much as to direct rightful attention and service to the bride and groom. Guests bring gifts; they don't take them. Even as bride or groom, we still first look away from ourselves to the other and then the group.
The constructive side is much more intriguing. Instead of thinking only about what might be inappropriate at a wedding, we get to think about all the positive ceremony we can create on a Sabbath. Weddings and the events surrounding them are often full of symbols, singing, playfulness, beauty, fine array, history, ceremonial drama, blessings, exhortations, promises, hope, feasts, wine, grand desserts and lovemaking (assuming those two are different).
Worship with the saints with all its ceremony and symbolism is obviously right at the center of the Sabbath. But the whole day is "holy" or set apart. It's not a normal day. The families I know who are consciously trying to express the Sabbath as a wedding will do so differently and that's wonderful. Weddings are different too. We never want to be imperialistic in any of this. Families have to adapt to their own abilities, gifts, and age spread. But for what it's worth, several of our families enjoy beginning Sabbath on Saturday evening as in the Christian medieval and Jewish traditions. Some of us go from six to six, and we begin with the grandest meal on Saturday evening (and sometimes follow up with another on Sunday afternoon). That Saturday meal sets the high tone for the entire Sabbath, full of special food, wine, best china, prayers, blessings, laughter, stories, and recitations.
The Sabbath is also a time for resting in and judging our work from the prior week. When God completed creating, He "rested" on the Sabbath and judged His work was good. Parents of a groom or bride often make similar judgments at weddings as they send off a delightful child they shaped by God's grace. Families, too, can look back on the creations of the week and delight in goodness. Sunday afternoons are a great time to hear family creations from the week prior-poems, stories, music pieces, etc. In the same way, family walks, especially light nature walks, are great times to reflect on the glories of creation, the glories of the Groom's work. Sometimes families can have the best times by just sitting around with each other and talking or playing special games as a group (Zech. 8:5), things often sadly lost during the week.
Several years ago, my wife and I noticed that we had grown a bit in celebration, but the Sabbath still lacked some of that depth and joyful solemnity that Scripture describes. We decided to try to set the day apart even more from the rest of the week by reviving a light version of the biblical or medieval "hours" (Ps. 55:17; Acts 3:1; 10:9,30), praying every third hour. We wrote up some brief, family liturgies-lyrics, Scripture readings, prayers-that centrally involve the children, and we gather for prayer roughly every three hours (we skip the traditional times during sleep). This added nicer dimensions to our Sabbath we hadn't envisioned. But it's not for everyone. Other ways abound to make the day more meaningful and distinct. We close our Sabbath at 6:00 p.m. Sunday with our final liturgy and some special chocolate to remember, as one tradition says, "the sweet savor of the Sabbath."
Without using them as rigid math rules, several frames help guide all our activities. And they all fall out of the wedding analogy in one way or another. Whatever we do, (a) we try to do together (no lone rangers off in other rooms), (b) we try do it differently than in the normal week, (c) we try to do it for others (e.g., the guys do the dishes all Sabbath), (d) we try to involve the body, beauty, and imagination, not just the intellect. By thinking of the Sabbath in this way, we can more naturally seek God's pleasures rather than the "pleasures" of strife, violence, and arrogance condemned in Isaiah 58. As a family's children grow older, the Sabbath itself will change over time, and that's interesting to watch too. With infants and teenagers, naps might more readily fit into a Sabbath. But with anti-nappers around, dad's napping can be a form of selfishness.
And yet, the practical realities of celebrating the Sabbath as a wedding often clash with the ideals (funerals are much easier). Celebration takes disciplined planning. For example, it takes planning just to get food and baths and chores and clothes largely taken care of beforehand so Mom can have some hint of a break herself. Dads can yammer on about Sabbaths in a way that makes it the most laborious day for Mom. Planning can't just start Saturday morning. Pretty soon you realize that your whole week takes on a particular narrative as it works toward and from the Sabbath. And still, some Sabbaths will just seem too bland, disjointed, or fall apart completely. Food goes wrong, you forgot the gasoline, the kids are tweaked, and you're exhausted. These are tests God sends. Unlike a full wedding, you get to try to do it again better the next week.
And if you're doing it right, the Sabbath could be the most joyous, restful, and tiring day of the week for the parents, especially if you're pouring yourself out for one another and the kids. It is a day to give rest, not necessarily to take it: "present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom. 12:1). All habits seem hard at first, but after a few years they become like breathing.
All the difficulties of a wedding Sabbath slowly start to make sense over time. The true rest comes when parents start to see the kids delighting in God through these things. Then they'll know they've started drawing the picture well.
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