Recently, I had one of those odd experiences which are both funny and humbling. I am nearly finished with Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. I continue to enjoy and appreciate both her perspective and articulate ability to teach me and to draw me into reflection about my own life. But that is not what is funny. As one who has tried to do some of what I do for a living, I am humbled by how well she does it. But it also is not what initially humbled me.
In her wonderful chapter, “The Practice of Saying No,” Taylor quotes one of my all-time favorite authors, the late Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died in 1972. Basically, the chapter is about the Sabbath. And the quotation Taylor uses from Heschel comes from his book, The Sabbath, published in 1951. I remember discovering this book while I was in my seminary days. I recall how amazing that book touched me. Heschel had a way of seeing things that made me gasp and think, “I never would have thought about it that way!”
Reading Heschel and seeing the Sabbath from the eyes of a Jew and one who certainly knew the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) far better than I knew it, made me want to learn even more. But this was not in my mind as my eyes cruised over the words in Taylor’s book. Most of what Taylor writes about is at least things I have thought about and often know quite a bit about. So when she started describing Sabbath from the Jewish perspective, I didn’t expect too much.
Correctly, she notes, Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown and concludes at sundown on Saturday. Then she makes a comment that caused me to realize something I had never thought about. She says, rather innocently, “Look the word up in the book of Exodus and you will discover that Jews were observing Sabbath before Moses brought the stone tablets of God’s holy law down from Mount Sinai.” “Ah, so it was,” I thought to myself. But I did not realize what I was about to learn in the next couple sentences.
She continues, “The first holy thing in all creation, Abraham Heschel says, was not a people or a place but a day. God made everything in creation and called it good, but when God rested on the seventh day, God called it holy. That makes the seventh day a ‘palace in time,’ Heschel says, into which human beings are invited every single week of our lives.” I laughed. To read that piece that Taylor borrows from Heschel both was fun and humbling.
It was fun because it was so good. It is vintage Heschel. It reminds me that I have read Genesis and the creation story multiple times, but it never hit me. Sabbath is built right into creation itself. Of course, at one level I know that---knew it even before going to school and, certainly, before going to seminary. But it seems I never “knew” it. It is like knowing something, but not knowing its significance. To learn now is fun and funny!
And it is humbling. It is humbling because I know I have read Heschel’s book! And I can’t remember ever reading that line. I looked it up and it is right at the beginning of Heschel’s book. I could not have been tired of the book that fast! It is humbling to know I read something so profound and I missed it! But thanks to Taylor, I still have a chance to get it.
The first holy thing God gave the world was the Sabbath. For six days God created things and called them “good.” But when God created the Sabbath, God called it “holy.” The Sabbath is the first holy thing---not a people nor a place. This reminds me what I do know---holiness is first of all a feature of time rather than space/place. That is very Jewish and very Christian.
It seems to me contemporary Christians and secular people do not think about time as being holy---or at least capable of being holy. Christians might more readily think about places being holy. After all, so many churches---Catholic and even non-Catholic---are named St. Something. But contemporary people have lost a sense of time being holy. Perhaps the closet we get is a birthday or, better, a birth. A woman giving birth does seem to be a holy moment.
Rediscovering the Sabbath does not mean going back to doing nothing on Sunday (or Saturday if you are Jewish). Those days of my boyhood are over. Rediscovering the Sabbath does not fine or make some time for holiness---for sacred experience. The words of an old hymn come to mind: “Take Time to be Holy.” Taylor is on to something in her chapter when she says it often means saying “No.”
Taking time to be holy is an identity thing. It means taking time to find and spend time with the Holy One. To spend time that way reminds me that I am created in the image and likeness of the Holy One. My life is also meant to be lived sacramentally. It is meant to be a special life in this palace in time.