What are “Lost Sabbaths” and Why Do They Matter Today?

In this past  Sunday’s readings (Fourth Sunday of Lent B)there came an instruction to God’s people that they would be exiled seventy years. And why? the text supplies a reason:

Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.” (2 Chron 36:16).

Of all the things we might think of as a serious matter, so serious as to merit exile, “lost sabbaths” would not occur to most of us in this present age. Other matters such as violence, murder, sexual sin, greed, injustice and so forth would occur first to us. So, how are we to understand these “lost sabbaths” and why was their loss so serious as to require seventy years of exile?

Linguistically the phrase rendered in our lectionary as “lost sabbaths” is, in Hebrew: ratsah and shabbathRatsah can mean “lost,” but its first meaning is “pleasing” or acceptable.”  A Sabbath that is pleasing of course is a sabbath that conforms with what God commands: You shall do no work (Exodus 20:8-11) and you shall keep sacred assembly (Lev 23:3). This is a sabbath that pleases God. Any contrary behavior amounts to a “lost sabbath.”

Pastorally a lost sabbath impacts the individuals who fail in its requirements as well as communities that no longer enforce such mandates. In this case the text of Chronicles and the prophet Jeremiah whom it cites warns the whole land of Judah of the dire consequences of lost sabbaths and indicates that the wounds that follow from this failure will take seventy years to repair.  What happens to nations in which large numbers no longer keep the Third Commandment? What happens is that many no longer receive common instruction on the Word of God and what is expected of us. When large numbers stay way from communal instruction, as we have today, the citizens of a nation or land stop sharing  a common reference (i.e. the Scriptures) or worldview. A shared vision is lost. And where there is no vision, the people perish (Prov 29:28). How do they perish? With no shared vision we descend rapidly into a suffocating subjectivism and a tyranny of relativism. Basic and shared understandings of reality are supplanted by highly personalized and ultimately divisive ideologies. This sows division and debates about even basic matters such as “what is a woman?”  What is right and what is wrong? What is the purpose and ultimate meaning of life? The list quickly becomes endless.

Hence, when large numbers of the community no longer assemble to receive common instruction and to affirm it with their “Amen,” unity quickly disintegrates and is replaced by rancor, and endless debate, by power struggles and heavy pressure not to depart from the narrative of the powerful that replaces the biblical narrative. Such a nation is beset by divisions, fractures and an inability to articulate shared values and goals. As such it grows weak and vulnerable. It is easily overtaken, not only by other more unified nations, but also by demons and by its own inner weakness and self-consuming cancers. These cancers gnaw away and metastasize, spreading into every once unitive organizations (e.g. schools and sports) and ultimately sets its aim on destroying even families, the most basic unit of any civilization, nation or Church. With no shared vision, everything is politicized, everything is a powder keg. It is like a wheel with spokes but no hub to join them. The wheel quickly disintegrates as it  rolls  to its own destruction.

No long ago this nation saw the vast majority of its citizens in Church every Sunday morning. And while we had sectarian differences we were all reading from and being instructed by the same book, the Bible. There was still a hub, a shared biblical worldview that united us, whatever the diverse spokes that radiated outward. In the 1950s through the early 1970s as many as 85% of Americans attend Church nearly every Sunday. Today, that number is less than 20%. These “lost Sabbaths” amount to a loss of instruction in God’s word, and thereby a loss in unity. At the heart of every culture is a shared cultus (a faith or devotion. We can see it right in the word: CULTure. Without a share “cultus” there can be no culture. There are some who like to deny the Judeo-Christian heritage of this country. But in this, they deny history and reality. Clearly God and his holy writ were fundamental in spurring the Declaration of Independence and biblical justice is foundational to our laws and vision. The references to God by the founding Fathers of this nation are enormous in number and they simply take the  biblical vision as granted and its moral claims indisputable.

But in the decades following the 1960s Church attendance dropped precipitously and “lost sabbaths” are having their effect, as already noted above.

Some speak today of diversity as a nearly absolute and detached virtue and use this notion to dismiss a shared biblical vision. But diversity is only a strength if we share a unifying core. With that core there is e pluribus unum, but without it there is only a caustic brew that consumes everything of value in this dissolving bath of competing ideologies and persnickety wokeness.

Lost sabbaths bring a terrible curse of division upon us. The ancient Jews shared this curse and, it was so deep that it would take seventy years to heal the wounds. It doesn’t take long to realize that today with our own divisions so painful and deep. Our land is so deeply divided that we seem to be incapable of recovering unity. Only a widespread return to regular and communal instruction in the Faith and God’s Word can heal the wounds of lost sabbaths. We are coming close to the seventy years of lost Sabbaths mentioned in Sunday’s first reading. If seventy years of exile was to be their lot, what will come to us upon whom the end of the ages has come (cf 1 Cor 10:11)?

But God’s offer still stands:

If my people, who are called by My name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and I will heal their land. (2 Chron 7:14)

One Reply to “What are “Lost Sabbaths” and Why Do They Matter Today?”

  1. In this line “No long ago in this nation saw” you do not need the word “in.”

    Excellent but very scary article. I don’t see a good solution to the problem. Yes, I can hope and pray that the Good Lord sends a prophet to brings us back to Sunday Mass. But I don’t see him on the horizon.

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