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The Jovial Sabbath: C.S. Lewis on Rest and Joy

My understanding of the Sabbath was transformed last year when I read John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One. He argues that the creation account in the opening chapters of scripture is intended to be read as an ancient Near Eastern description of a deity constructing his temple and setting up its functions. This temple focus then shapes Walton’s interpretation of God’s rest on the seventh day. He says that we need to know

the piece of information that everyone knew in the ancient world and to which most moderns are mostly oblivious. Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say this is what a temple is – a place for divine rest (71).
What does divine rest entail? Most of us think of rest as disengagement from the cares, worries and tasks of life. What comes to mind is sleeping in or taking an afternoon nap. But in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have “settled down.” Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles than disengagement without responsibilities (71-72).

So, rather than giving us an image of God kicking back in a Lazy Boy for his day off after a long week at work, Genesis provides an image of God as king dwelling in his temple as the place from which he rules the cosmos. Thus, the Psalmist:

Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool- arise, O Lord, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.
For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling: “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it (132:7-8, 13-14).

God rests in his temple and from their he reigns over and governs all that he has made. Indeed, God’s rest is his unhindered and uninterrupted rule over the cosmos. Thus, according to Walton, human beings properly observe the Sabbath when we recognize that God is on his throne. It is God whose reign sustains us and provides for us. So, the Sabbath is a time to “Do whatever will reflect your love, appreciation, respect and awe of the God of all the cosmos” (146). While Sabbath is not a call to think ourselves sovereign over the cosmic order, it is our participation in God’s rightful reign. 

These reflections came rushing back over the weekend as I read Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, a fascinating study in which he argues that Lewis deployed the medieval characters of the planets as the unifying element in the overall structure of The Chronicles of Narnia. In chapter three on Lewis’ use of Jupiter, or Jove, the king of the planets. Ward cites this excerpt from Lewis’ The Discarded Image:

The character [Jupiter] produces in men would now be imperfectly expressed by the word ‘jovial,’ and is not very easy to grasp; it is no longer, like the saturnine character, one of our archetypes. We may say it is Kingly; but we must think of a King at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil, magnanimous. When this planet dominates we may expect halcyon days and prosperity.

Lewis himself stood in a long line of Christian authors and poets who employed Jupiter’s place in the Medieval cosmology to image the joy and beauty of the reign of God in their literary works. Lewis does this best in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which leads Ward to remark, 

Aslan’s bodily presence is the concentration of the Jovial supra-personality in one place, one character. That kingship which cannot be seen in the transcendent Emperor (Aslan’s Father)…or in the broader Narnian cosmos…becomes focused in the King of the Wood. Peter and his siblings can hear the name of this manifestation of Jupiter. Better, they can actually observe him: ‘they saw what they had come to see.’ Better still, they can touch him and even stroke him…As the children come to know Aslan they find themselves living increasingly in his spirit (72).

Walton’s interpretation of Sabbath and Lewis’ comments on the character of Jove clearly have much in common. Three reflections come to mind with this intersection of the Hebrew Sabbath and pre-Copernican cosmology. First, when the Jovial Aslan comes to liberate Narnia from the wintry spell of the White Witch, Narnia comes into the Lion’s rest. This does not mean that the Narnians disengage from life and work and play. To the contrary, only in the leonine liberty are they able to rightly engage life and work and play in a realm that is, at last, rightly ordered. As Walton put it, crisis is resolved and stability is achieved. In this way, Lewis’ depiction of the Golden Age of Narnia gives us a powerful image of the biblical Sabbath, an image in which the people of God are fully engaged in the rightly ordered work of God as image-bearers and vice-regents of the Jovial King himself.

Second, the convergence of Sabbath with the character of Jupiter fills the concept of rest with maturation in joy. Ward observes that when Aslan puts things to rights, “All four children grow up in the same spirit and mystically participate in its kingly life: ‘So they lived in great joy and if ever they remembered their life in this world it was only as one remembers a dream.’ They become saturated with Joviality: ‘nothing is left over or outside the act’ (72). Thus, the Jovial Sabbath is not about a legalistic and burdensome obsession with keeping all the right rules. It is about the enjoyment of the beauty of the reign of God in magnanimous glory. Such enjoyment will, of course, be accompanied by God-honoring behavior, but the behavior grows out of the enjoyment, not out of the burden. In scripture and in Lewis, the Sabbath rest is meant for enjoying God.

Third, to thoroughly orient our understanding of Sabbath around the Jovial influence of the reign of God would, I imagine, have good effect on the mission and ministry of the church. The shift in focus to God’s reign from our own self-oriented disengagement will orient us to a life of embodying and extending that reign, a life of joy in self-giving love, a Sabbath life. Further, there is something about Joviality that is contagious. God will draw the nations to the jovial proclamation and embodiment of his reign of peace. 

We would do well to listen with care to the music of the spheres as we contemplate and enjoy God’s jocund design for his rest and ours. 


Image: Paula Baynes’ original cover art for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

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