Review of Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting

Rachel Bomberger is Internet marketing manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and playing Christmas carols with her family on peaceful Sunday afternoons.

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Rachel Bomberger
Rachel Bomberger

There are some of the Ten Commandments that I have no trouble obeying. I’ve never killed anyone. (I don’t think I could.) Adultery doesn’t tempt me. (I have an awesome husband.) Honoring my father and mother was a little tricky when I was a teenager, but it feels like second nature to me now. (Again, though . . . my parents are pretty awesome.) I don’t steal. (By the grace of God, I don’t have to.) I try my hardest not to lie or “bear false witness.” (Cross my heart!)

Sabbath, though . . . Sabbath I don’t do so well. I’m a working mother — with a heavy emphasis on working. My weekdays I spend working at work; my weekends I spend working at home. After forty hours at the office, I wake up Saturday morning to piles of laundry and clutter — a home in chaos. It usually takes me most of Saturday and Sunday to set things right before heading back to work on Monday. I’d like to rest (if I could only manage to get caught up first), but deep down inside, I don’t think I can afford to rest. What’s more, I almost never feel like I’ve done quite enough to deserve to rest.

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly

This is why I’m so thankful to have discovered Marva Dawn’s 1989 classic Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting.

In just over 200 joyful pages, Dawn lays out the full essence of what “remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy” can mean for Christians, including me.

For Dawn, Sabbath is neither a duty to be fulfilled nor a reward to be earned — it is a gift to be gratefully received. It is a day that not only becomes the joyous high point of the week for those who observe it — a holy oasis in time — but that also provides spiritual, physical, and emotional nourishment to carry them through the other six days.

Knowing that Sabbath is always immanent, Sabbath-keepers order their days in anticipation. They work harder knowing that they will rest on Sabbath. They live more simply knowing that they will feast on Sabbath.

To Dawn, moreover, the Sabbath is profoundly eschatological — it is “both temporal and eternal. Our weekly celebrations help us to be more aware that God is eternally present, but the fact that Sunday moves on into Monday keeps reminding us that our short-lived Sabbath celebrations are but a foretaste of the eternal feast that we will someday enjoy in God’s presence.”

Sabbath, she tells me, isn’t just for observant Jews — though she certainly believes that Christians can learn a lot about the joy and blessings of Sabbath from Jews, who have generally been noticeably more faithful in and mindful of their Sabbath keeping than Christians have over the years. She quotes liberally from Jewish writers and theologians throughout the book, and her own reflections are greatly enriched by the wisdom of many experienced Sabbath keepers.

The extent of her research shows clearly that Marva Dawn is no intellectual lightweight — she holds a Ph.D. from Notre Dame and four (four!) master’s degrees. Yet her book is nothing like the dry, dense, and esoteric volume of heavy theology I might expect from someone with her credentials. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly is thoughtful and intelligent, yes, but it’s also accessible, friendly — even tender. What’s more, it’s eminently practical.

Dawn helpfully breaks Sabbath keeping down into what she sees as its fourfold essence: we cease from our labors, we rest in God’s grace, we embrace God’s goodness, and . . . we feast: “We feast in every aspect of our being — physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual — and we feast, with music, beauty, food, and affection. Our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits celebrate together with others that God is in our midst.”

When I think of Sabbath like that, it sounds so delightful — and so doable.

So, last weekend, I did it. My family and I observed Sabbath, Marva Dawn-style. We spent Saturday in preparation, and we rested on Sunday, devoting the day to worship, to play, to relaxation, and to family time — not to work. For once, we took special care to honor the holy commandment we so often overlook: we “remembered the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

I’ve written about the experience more extensively on my personal blog, but here’s an excerpt that should give you a rough idea of how it went:

“When I crawled into bed [on Sunday night] . . . I was struck by how happy and at peace I was, and by how much less frantic and more joyful the weekend had been than our weekends often are.

Too frequently, our precious Saturdays and Sundays wind up becoming messy jumbles of activity and inactivity, of chaos and lethargy. We try to do everything — housework, yard work, church work, play, rest, recreation, worship, exercise, entertainment, family time — all at once, and nothing gets the time or attention it deserves.

This weekend was different. We worked harder than we usually do on Saturday, yes, but it was happy work, in preparation for a good and restful time we knew was coming. And Sunday . . . Sunday was lovely.”

Click here to order Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly

Do you “keep Sabbath” in your family? If so, how? If not, why not? Share your thoughts and experiences below in the comments.