Silent Sundays

Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them.  Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural.  One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings.  The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions.  The church I attend has gone to virtual services.  In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on.  Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.

Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments.  We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians.  They defied government orders and sometimes died for it.  Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place.  I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services.  At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before.  And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.

We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday.  An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection.  Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park.  Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings.  We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor.  It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light.  It’s a wonder and a source of awe.  And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.

No Whine

Sneaking in a grocery run to Wegmans before church one Sunday awhile back, I was in line behind a distinguished looking gentleman. “I’m sorry,” the clerk told him, “we can’t sell alcohol before 11 a.m.” She set aside an expensive looking bottle of Glenlivet as he nodded solemnly. From behind me a woman called out, “Is that true, I can’t buy my wine?” Like Paul Masson, it seems, in New Jersey they will sell no wine before its time. Many, I suspect, have supposed that blue laws would’ve lapsed by now. What most people probably don’t realize is that this is yet another instance of how the Bible continually impacts our lives. Although the weekend has become enshrined as relief from jobs that most of us find tedious, blue laws were biblically based to keep us in line.

The Puritans did all within their power to enforce their views onto larger society. Sunday was not only “the sabbath,” it was a time for no fun—read Laura Ingalls Wilder for getting a sense of what this was like even on the frontier—and church attendance. Nothing potentially more attractive than church was to be on offer on Sunday morning. Here in over-populated, wonderfully diverse, secular New Jersey, those doing their weekly grocery shopping were learning the Bible has a very long reach indeed. Even if many people don’t realize that the Good Book’s behind it, they must abide by Puritan standards. I suspect many have no idea why blue laws remain in force. The Bible doesn’t loosen its grip easily.

As we pushed our cart past the ends of the other check-out lanes I noticed that several of them had bottles purloined at the point of egress. I suspect that most of the would-be buyers weren’t hurrying home to get ready for church. Instead, they were probably annoyed that they’d have to go out again later to continue their purchases. The Supreme Court has upheld blue laws on the basis of giving time off to those of certain professions that work by the hour. Those of us who don’t punch the clock are, according to the logic of such a decision, given exemption from the law of the land (but not to make immoral Sunday morning purchases. Indeed, in some professions attendance at church is part of the job expectation). It is perhaps bewildering for those raised in different religions. The idea of time off, although it probably wasn’t intended for humanitarian reasons, has also become one of the hidden blessings of the Bible. Without the sabbath, our weekends would also be an opportunity for others to make more money by the usufruct of our precious time. Holding off a few hours to buy alcohol seems like a small price to pay, in comparison. The Bible giveth, and the Bible taketh away.

Monday Morning of the Soul

Western society is much indebted to the Hebrew Bible and the culture it has engendered. Nowhere is this more evident than the now hallowed concept of the weekend. Most of our time increments are determined by the movements of celestial bodies – the sun marks our days and years, the moon keeps our months rolling along. But the seven-day week is a bit of an anomaly. We know that the ancient Babylonians experimented with the seven-day idea, but it was the Hebraic concept of the Sabbath that provided us with a regular day off.

Ancient agrarian societies knew no “days of rest.” The old saying, often attributed to nineteenth-century American farmers, states that your cows require milking, even on the Lord’s day. Life in ancient times, for most individuals, was a daily slog, repetitive, long, and repetitive, of struggling to survive. The idea that you could take a break from survival to relax and not work simply did not equate. A break from survival is the same as death. When ancient priests – city-dwellers, no doubt – decreed that Saturday was a special day because even the Almighty needs a little Miller-time, well, the idea caught on. Society, once it had become sufficiently urbanized, could allow one day off a week.

Fast forward to the Christian contribution. Early followers of Jesus were Jewish and therefore already sold on the Sabbath concept. The resurrection, they asserted, took place on Sunday, so it was appropriate to worship on that day as well. A two-day worship minimum had been established. To many ancient folks this looked like laziness with a religious blush. Nevertheless, it caught on. Now many of us in a leisure-based society, with white-collar work that usually can handle being put off a couple days without immanent starvation or over-lactation, live for the weekend. Constraints of doing it for “the man” are off, we are free to be who we really are. Two-sevenths of the time, anyway.

Religions have given the world special gifts. As another dreadful Monday morning forces us out of bed early and focuses our eyes on a distant Friday afternoon, we should remember to thank Judaism and Christianity for their combined worshipful sensitivities. If it weren’t for them, we would have endless weeks of Mondays.