George Herbert and Sunday

OUR PRESENT age is described as a post-Christian era. Future generations may well look back on our age with surprise. How did it all come about? Why this? Why that? How much did their faith mean to them, those so-called believers, who seem to have let so much slip so easily? A sobering thought since those believers are ourselves.

A chosen topic for a 22nd century Ph.D. might for instance, be something like this : The Rise and Fall of the Keep Sunday Special Movement in late 20th century Britain : reason for the demise of Sunday. Or so it could run unless we put the brakes on and begin to reverse the trend.

This is not a plea for a puritanical Sabbatarianism but a recognition that we are beginning to lose, bit by bit, one of the most central symbols and reference points of our faith – THE LORD’S OWN DAY – with all that these words richly imply. If we hope to stage some sort of rescue operation in time, we must firstly rekindle our enthusiasm and then begin to play our own part, insignificant though that may feel to be. It will not of course be easy and comfortable, for standing out and being different never is. A glance back, however, at some of the writings of the 17th century Anglican priest-poet, George Herbert, might perhaps inspire and encourage us.

There is his poem entitled quite simply Sunday. Images tumble over each other there to describe this day of both rest and gladness, the day on which we celebrate our creation and redemption and look forward to the joys of heaven. What we lost in Eden through disobedience is now restored to us by Christ’s blood shed on Calvary:

O Day most calm, most bright
The fruit of this, the next worlds bud,
The indorsement of supreme delight,
Writ by a friend, and with his blood …
The week were dark, but for thy light…

Yes! Sunday is meant to make the other days possible and manageable. Woe to us if we merge them into a drudgery of sameness and forfeit our space for wonder, worship and re-creation:

The other days and thou
Make up one man; whose face thou art,
Knocking at heaven with thy brow;
The work-days are the back part;
The burden of the week lies there,
making the whole to stoop and bow,
Till thy release appear.

In these days of enforced leisure for so many in Western society, through lack of meaningful employment, it is folly indeed to take away the centuries-old pattern of the Christian week, leading up to and growing out of each successive Sunday as it does. The pattern is there even for those who do not understand its significance in the way that, hopefully, the Christian believer does. The unemployed can still dream of a share in the rhythm of work and rest, creating it for themselves as best they can – while the structure is in place, that is. But if every day becomes a same-day monotonous repetition without break, then be sure we have a recipe for despair

George Herbert knew far better. Sundays were the high points of his life. He sees them all strung together, forming a bracelet to beautify Christ’s bride, the Church:

The Sundays of man’s life,
Threaded together on Life string,
make bracelets to adorn the wife
of the eternal King.

Indeed on Sundays, rightly lived and savoured, earth and heaven are brought into closest union, and God’s goodness overflows abundantly beyond all our imagining.

On Sunday heavens gate stands ope;
Blessings are plentiful and rife,
More plentiful than hope.

A Sister of Holy Cross Convent Rempstone