By Mike Aquilina
God made us for work. When He created the first man and woman, He commanded them to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28). “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).
We were “put” on earth to work the earth. We’re hardwired for labor, and we won’t be satisfied unless we fulfill God’s command.
Yet that’s not the end of the story. For work itself is ordered to something greater. God’s six days of “labor,” His six days of creation, are ordered to a Sabbath of rest. “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (Gen 2:2).
Historical critics arch an eyebrow at the line and dismiss it as anthropomorphism—the tendency of primitive peoples to project human qualities onto God. But I think the Church Fathers and early rabbis had a clearer sense of the sacred text and its sacred meaning.
Our work is service due to God. He commanded it, and it’s necessary (by His design) for the continuing creation and sanctification of the world. But work is merely preliminary, and it’s secondary in importance. Our more important service is worship, and the mark of worship is leisure: the seventh day. As one of the ancient rabbis put it, the Sabbath is “last in creation, first in intention.”
The critical scholars are right about one thing at least. If God is who we say He is—almighty and unchanging—He doesn’t grow tired, and He never needs to rest. If He did “take a rest” in the Genesis narrative, He did so, like a good father, in order to show His children how to do it. He was modeling the leisure He wanted us to keep, and He institutionalized it in the Sabbath.
It’s almost as if God is daring us to trust Him—to let go of the plow (or the computer keyboard, or the tool chest) and rest in confidence that the Creator who started the job can finish it just fine, with or without our eight- or ten-hour days. When we rest on Sunday, when we schedule our vacation, when we make ample time to look away from the computer screen and look into the eyes of our children, we are showing God that we trust Him. It’s an outward sign of our innermost faith. Vacation is a sort of sacrament.
Give it a Rest, Already
There are, of course, benefits to vacation in the natural order. Our bodies need rest. Our minds need rest. Aristotle was a practical man, and he saw the benefits of leisure. He says, in the Nicomachean Ethics, “Since we cannot work forever, we need relaxation.” Rest, he said, is “a means to activity.” Modern research has confirmed that employees who rest are indeed more productive than employees who work without ceasing.
As Christians we have the obligation to worship on Sunday, and our great and obligatory act of worship is called the Eucharist. The name comes from the Greek eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.”In leisure we take delight in creation, not just because it makes us feel good, but because it gives glory to God. On Sunday, for example, we enjoy the company of spouse and children, not simply because that’s what’s on the schedule for Sunday, but because we have freed our minds to see these people as they are, and see them for what they are.
When we attend a Sunday Mass with our families, we have a God-given chance to see a spouse, a child, a parent, a grandchild as a gift from God, and we have a chance to thank God for the gift. God doesn’t need our thanks, and He doesn’t need our worship. If He has commanded these actions, it is because He knows we need them. He knows they’re good for us.
The Last Word on Leisure
Leisure requires work on our part, a little planning, a little expense.
But this, too, is labor for the sake of a Sabbath. We toil now so that we can relax for a while and let God work in our leisure.
To leave work on time—to forego the optional Sunday shift—to use vacation time rather than piling it up—these are acts of trust. And they are tithes paid to God, simple and small tokens acknowledging that He is really the owner of all our hours of all our days.
Please understand: I have not come here to induce a guilt trip on hard-working parents. For the sake of our families, we need to work hard.
But we also need to know when to give it a rest.
Leisure is an opportunity to draw close to God, in Himself and in others, in relaxed study and in prayer, in delight in His creation and in the delightful contingency of a shared ride on the roller coaster.
Leisure is a notoriously unproductive thing, when judged by industrial standards, but it does produce such moments, and such moments are holy.
This post originally appeared in Lay Witness magazine.
Mike Aquilina is the author or editor of over thirty books on the Catholic faith, including his most recent works published by Emmaus Road Publishing.