Without the Day of the Lord We Cannot Live!

All of us know about being time-poor.  The logic of the machine holds sway everywhere–maximum output in the minimum time. And sadly, our lives in the west have become dangerously unbalanced. Our activity is not rooted in contemplation, in rest: rather we tend to race the clock, becoming over-caffeinated, and spending our free hours in escapist fantasies.

Timothy Radcliffe’s What is the Point of Being a Christian? ends with a long reflection on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, as a corrective to the madness of the contemporary situation—as that without which we cannot live.

He takes his theme from an obscure episode in 204AD in North Africa—the arrest of a householder, Emeritus, for hosting a Sunday Eucharist in defiance of imperial edict.  Why did he do it? He said to the Roman authorities, “without the day of the Lord we cannot live!” The Christian Sabbath was for him the meaning of life.  (p. 194)

The Sunday rest, says Radcliffe:

“is aimed at the idolatry of work. Just as all idols are ‘the work of men’s hands,’ so … work may always become an idol, a means of alienation. The Sabbath is there to stop you being absorbed in the success story, to prevent you being enslaved to productivity and profit.” (ibid)

Only when we leave the production line do we remember important dimensions of our humanity: spending time with others, telling our stories, reading, playing sport, appreciating art, or doing our own creative work.   I want to suggest that, in the current situation, it is the social and imaginative dimensions of our humanity that are especially impoverished. Even if we do, in fact have hours to spare after the working week, we don’t spend them as socially or imaginatively as we would like. After it all, there is restlessness.

Imagination, for its part, is often disparaged as mere time-wasting: yet it is, actually, essential for all sociality. For it is only by imagining that we can inhabit other people, other lives, and other times—indeed the whole tradition, in its past and future bearings. We imagine our way into what anyone says to us. How alien would the world seem to one without any imagination at all.

More than this, imagination is itself a participation in truth and in reality. We imagine our way in; and by imagination we become co-creators with God. The poet Shelley said that the creative mind is like “a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” For him, as for the romantics in general, the imagination was a co-creative power, “a shaping spirit.”

The true rest is social and imaginative.  Only then are we released from the prison-house of our small and narrow selves. We expand: we become something more. We open up to God. We realise that our true security is not the work of our hands, but God, the One in whom we rest. (195-8)

And this, I think, is what the Sabbath day is all about.  Without the day of the Lord we cannot live!

Radcliffe says that we do not rest as we should. We veer dangerously to cheap entertainments—to spectator sport and forms of virtual reality. We indulge in escapism and fantasy.   Radcliffe paints a sad picture of it, saying that we live in a world of screens, interfaces, and networks: “we live everywhere already in an “aesthetic” hallucination of reality.” (204, citing Baudrillard)  We are reduced to solitary watchers, or gamers: but full participation eludes us.

The rest we need, the rest that will renew us, is characterized by participation and sharing. It is about mutual recognition, honour, presence, and play. It is about imagining our way one into another, and becoming skilled at negotiating sociality. It is about remembering that our inner lives are formed in one another. Yet there is nothing escapist about it. We might simply look around the table at those we call friends, and we are replete: that is the rest of the Lord’s day.

And that is the anticipation of the heavenly rest. Could it be, asks Radcliffe:

“that in our society the explosion of entertainment is a vague nostalgia for the Christian promise of Paradise, when, as Jeremiah says, ‘their life will be like a watered garden.  They will never be weary again.  Then the young girls will rejoice and will dance, and the men, young and old will be glad.’ (31.31)?  For a generation that has lost its hope of heaven, is Disney World the last echo of our dreams? For hope we have substituted fantasy; instead of [heaven] we have virtual reality!“ (p. 204)

We who have made an idol of work need the Sabbath rest: we need a time for gathering up and healing—but let’s remember that the rest which truly revives is social and imaginative.  It is not watching another reality TV marathon, but taking our rest in and with one another: and in God, who gives us life.

Without the day of the Lord we cannot live!