ME RECENTLY I had occasion to place a long-distance business telephone call on Saturday night from the Washington, D.C., area to Portland, Oregon. Although it was a full hour past the Sabbath sundown closing here, I realized that there were still about two hours of the Sabbath remaining there. I had to take these three additional hours into account to avoid talking business with my son on the West Coast during his Sabbath hours.
On the other hand, if I were to place a call to London, England, on Friday afternoon, I would have to take into account the fact that the •Sabbath would commence there approximately five hours before it did on the East Coast of the United States, and about eight hours before it did on the West Coast.
A few years ago I placed calls from Bandung, Java, by radio telephone to the United States, and found that we were twelve hours ahead of Washington, D.C., and fifteen hours ahead of Los Angeles, California.
All of this may lead to the question: How long is a day? and specifically, How long is the Sabbath? The answer can be given that it is from 24 hours to 48 hours in length depending upon the various points of reference involved.
The Date Line
The Sabbath, or any other day, begins at the date line in the Pacific Ocean and proceeds westward, as the earth turns toward the east, until it arrives again at this same line 24 hours later. However, it is just the beginning of the Sabbath that arrives at this line in 24 hours. You must now add another 24 hours for it to pass this point. This makes 48 hours in all from the time the Sabbath first comes to the earth until the end of the Sabbath leaves the earth.
The date line is so drawn that it does not pass over land areas, thus avoiding general public confusion of days. However, in the Pacific Ocean there are areas where a short boat trip eastward across the date line to a neighboring island at sundown can make the 48-hour day a practical reality. It is just as possible on another day to return westward over the date line at the time of sundown and, in effect, miss a day altogether. Ships and airplanes make a day's adjustment every time they cross the date line regardless of the time of the crossing.
Some may wonder at this juncture how seven forty-eight-hour days can be fitted into our 168-hour week. The reconciliation lies in the fact that varying portions of two days are upon the earth at the same time. The computation of the hours of the week is done at a single point on the earth, thus eliminating a double count of time for each day.
Points of Reference
The key to the whole problem of timing our days lies in the conception of a single point of reference upon the earth. At any one point on the surface of the earth a day is just 24 hours long. It is when more than one point of reference is used that the day stretches out toward the 48-hour mark depending upon the location of these points of reference.
Theoretically, whenever we move to a different location we have changed somewhat the length of our day. This may be infinitesimally small, or it may amount to minutes or hours depending upon the distance and direction of our travel. Ordinarily there is no practical problem because the Creator has definitely marked the boundaries of the day by the setting of the sun. We merely keep the Sabbath as it is determined for us in this way according to our location on the earth. Our points of reference are where we happen to be at the time of each sunset.
Sabbath in the Polar Regions
Keeping the Sabbath at or near the North or South Poles used to be only a theoretical problem. Today, however, man is beginning to utilize these areas for experimentation and travel. Some sixty-six nations participated in the recent geophysical year experiments in Antarctica, and twelve nations sponsored major scientific expeditions there. The United States established a station known as Little America only about eight hundred miles from the South Pole.
It is not necessary to be a scientist on a polar research project to enter into a polar environment. Certain airlines now make regular flights near the North Pole as they fly from Scandinavian countries to the West Coast of the U.S.A. or to Tokyo via Alaska.
At the poles the sun appears above the horizon for a six-month period of light, and stays below the horizon for a six-month period of darkness each year. As the "fall" season approaches the darkness rises from the depressions of earth and gradually forms a thickening pall over the polar regions. With the coming of "spring" the sun ascends a bit more each day until at last its rays touch the earth, the darkness is dispelled, and the sun is seen above the horizon.
In the six-month polar day the sun does not sink below the horizon at night but follows it around the whole 360-degree arc. At the poles it does not "dip" toward the horizon at midnight as it does in inhabited lands some distance away. Thus, there is no setting and rising of the sun by which days can be conveniently marked.
How would the Sabbath be kept while flying over the pole during the six-month period of darkness? Under these unusual conditions man must depend upon some known point of reference on the earth. This could be the point of origin of the flight, or perhaps the prime meridian at Greenwich, England. Then, with the help of a watch or chronometer and a schedule of sunsets for that point, the Sabbath could be kept. After all, determining the Sabbath would be no more difficult than determining any other day of the week.
At our most northerly Seventh-day Adventist church in Hammerfest, Norway, well above the Arctic Circle, our members have no difficulty in marking the bounds of the Sabbath. During the long polar night when the "dip of the sun" can no longer be seen, they rely on their watches to give them the time of the "dip" occurring below the horizon as last seen in their area.
The Sabbath in Space
As speedier travel becomes a reality for more and more persons, the timing of the Sabbath may appear to become more complicated. The sound barrier has long ago been passed and so has the speed of the earth's revolutions. It is now possible to gain time by flying in a supersonic jet from the east coast to the west coast. In a few more years this speed of travel may be common. As some have expressed it, "You may get there before you start."
These faster-than-earth flights may be extended to Europe, the Near East, and the Far East. Going west on Saturday night it would be possible to catch up with the Sabbath, and partially celebrate it twice. This is basically no different from the present west to east crossing of the date line by sea or air. We simply have to realize that we have changed our point of reference and keep the Sabbath in accordance with the location in which we find ourselves.
A more difficult problem arises in the case of spacecraft travel. When astronauts are orbiting the earth they pass through a number of sunsets and across the date line a number of times in each 24-hour period. It would be obviously impractical to be continually adjusting the clock or the calendar during these revolutions. Actually, the astronauts have used Houston, Texas, time to harmonize with the control center located there. This became their point of reference, and both hours and days were reckoned from this point.
In the not-so-distant future the United States or Russia may launch a manned orbiting laboratory known as MOL. This could hover over one point of the earth or be directed over various points as might be desired. Men and supplies could be provided and exchanged by means of rendezvous with other spacecraft.
Finally, there is the proposed trip to the moon, and its exploration by means of a lunar excursion module (LEM). There may, possibly, be manned flights to Venus or to Mars. Time would have to be kept in any such trips. Probably, the point of reference for time would be the control center on earth, or the point of origin of the flight. As long as time is kept in hours and days, the Sabbath may be known as of that point of reference.
Some may feel that such theoretical projections are unnecessary and confusing at present. We must realize, however, that the space age is a reality. Man is of necessity thinking beyond his present accomplishments. Surely our religion must keep pace with our physical attainments and possibilities.
Beyond all of this lies a vital principle: it is always possible to keep the Sabbath in spirit. God has not asked man to do that which cannot be done. The Sabbath is a vital part of that law which shall not be changed "till heaven and earth pass" (Matt. 5:18). We believe that the Sabbath will be kept in the earth made new, and we may believe that it can be kept as man circles a relatively small distance above it or even visits the moon or sister planets.
We must, however, keep a point of reference. This point of reference is on the earth. The "sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27), and man was placed upon the earth. As he now circles above it or leaves it temporarily in a spacecraft, he maintains contact with the earth. He is still a creature of the earth, and must take the vital elements of his environment with him. He must take food, water, and air with him. He must maintain contact with the control center, and that contact includes the concept of time.
There is another point of reference that we should bear in mind in our spiritual life. That point of reference is the Bible. It has well been called "our most distinguished point of reference." As we travel along the way to the heavenly kingdom we need a divinely inspired guidebook. We need to check our spiritual position to be certain that we are on the right path. We may well place implicit confidence in the Scriptures as the astronaut places his confidence in the control center on earth.
As portrayed in Early Writings, pages 14-20, God's people will soon embark on a spiritual space trip and spend "seven days ascending to the sea of glass." They will enter through the gates of the city to the throne of God. Time and the Sabbath are not forgotten on this spiritual voyage.
"I saw that the Sabbath never will be done away; but that the redeemed saints, and all the angelic host, will observe it in honor of the great Creator to all eternity." —Ibid., p. 217.