The Seventh Day: God’s rest and our rest in God
Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation. (Gen 2:1-3)
When we read or listen to the account of the seven days we naturally imagine God as though he were a human workman, working, laboring, and sweating for six days so that finally on the seventh day he can relax. We might then imagine him like the sculptor in his studio sitting back and admiring the statue he made seeing that it was very good. (cf. Gen 1:31)
It is good to use our imagination when we read Sacred Scripture, but we must at the same time learn that our imagination is insufficient to grasp the meaning of the word of God; we need also to move beyond the imagination to the understanding of the truth that is being revealed by God. The words of Scripture already contain elements that direct us beyond the imagination to the understanding.
In the first place, we should notice that God’s ‘work’ of creation is rather effortless. He simply commands and it comes to be. So a ‘work’ is produced, but without sweat and without labor. His command meets with no resistance.
Second, we could consider some words of Jesus, by which he justifies his performing a miracle on the Sabbath: My Father is at work until now, and so I am at work. (Jn 5:17) This does not just refer to the work of the man Jesus Christ, but also to the eternal activity of the Son and Word of God. So in the Letter to the Hebrews we read that God sustains all things by his mighty word. (Heb 1:3) In other words, through the same Word by which God created all things in the beginning, he continues to sustain all things in existence. (cf. Jn 1:3)
So while a human sculptor, a Michelangelo, fashions his statue, which then continues in existence without him and even after his death and departure from this world, God’s work only continues in existence by the same divine power by which it was made. In him we live, and move, and have our being. (Acts 18:28) So not only all existence, but all life and change, and therefore all fulfillment and perfection that comes about through change, has its origin in God. So the Book of Wisdom tells us that God’s wisdom reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well. (Wis 8:1)
If, then, God is so intensely ‘active’, so active that the greatest of philosophers have spoken of the godhead as ‘pure act’ or ‘pure actuality’, what could possibly be meant by God’s rest?
First, we could say that God’s rest tells us that his creative action does not exhaust or drain him in anyway. He creates the universe, but at the same time infinitely surpasses or ‘transcends’ the universe he created.
When Michelangelo was actually working on a statue, every fiber of body and mind was engaged in the work, consumed in the work; the energy within him, as it were, passed into the statue; he loses something of himself in the statue. Then even when he was resting, recovering his strength, much of his waking thought would have been taken up with the project underway. When he went to Mass, or prayed, or engaged in another activity, for a time perhaps he would withdraw himself from his occupation with the statue, some part of his life and his person beyond the statue would emerge.
God, however, would be at once completely occupied with his work of creation and completely at rest in his own eternity; further, there is infinitely more to be found in God’s eternity than to be found in the whole of his creation. So God rests in himself above and beyond creation.
There is another way we could speak of God’s rest. St. Augustine comments no a certain scriptural way of speaking where God will say something like “now I know” meaning “now I have made you to know”. So, he stays Abraham’s hand from slaying Isaac as a sacrifice, saying, Now I know how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold your only son from me. (Gen 22:12) This means in effect that, through the trial to which he put him, God led Abraham himself to discover the depth of his own devotion to God.
If we apply this way of speaking to God’s rest, then we can that God rests on the seventh day by making his creation to rest, even more particularly by making us to rest in him.
True rest is not the mere absence of motion or change, but even more involves the attainment of a goal. So, the seventh day tells us that man was not just created for work in this world, however noble, but that just as God himself transcends the world, man has been created to transcend the world by resting in God. The sanctification of the seventh day, then, means the sanctification of man through which he is given to share in the holiness of God.
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