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Aaron Thorup, Photo illustration by Aaron Thorup
Ox in the mire is a concept based on a biblical scripture. In the gospel of Luke, Christ healed a man on the Sabbath, after which he turned to the lawyers and Pharisees and asked, “Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5).

Last Sunday, five days before a big move into a new house, we told our kids after church to change out of their shirts and ties and put on grubby clothes.

“The ox is in the mire,” we announced, before we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

Traditionally, our Sundays are fairly low-key. We eschew electronics, opting instead for neighborhood walks, journal writing, dinner with friends and family and the occasional nap. Every family has a different standard for keeping the Sabbath Day holy. That’s ours.

So our kids were shocked to learn the ox was in the mire. In fact, they didn’t even know the phrase. “The ox is in the what?”

LDS friends, on the other hand, were completely understanding.

“Of course. Ox in the mire. Happens to a lot of us.”

The phrase “ox is in the mire," of course, has biblical roots. In the gospel of Luke, Christ healed a man on the Sabbath, after which he turned to the lawyers and Pharisees and asked, “Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5).

As far as my extensive internet search has taken me, it seems members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are one of the few (if not the only) denominations to still use this phrase, since we are one of just a few Christian congregations to observe the Sabbath in any strict sense.

What’s interesting is that the mire seems to have expanded a hundredfold. What was once intended to mean rescuing a person from spiritual or physical harm now encompasses everything from a car running out of gas to a need for emergency allergy medicine to packing and cleaning for an upcoming move. (Yes, I’m guilty of all three.)

Years ago, I was telling a Jewish friend about the “ox in the mire” phrase, which delighted her, because Jews have their own version: Hora’at Sha’ah, which allows for breaking the Sabbath to save another Jewish life.

I’m not sure if the Jews have taken Hora’at Sha’ah as far as our lovely ox, but it’s nice to see other faiths understand the gray area of Sabbath observance.

What to do on the Sabbath Day, when not pulling oxen out of deep pits, is one of those hotly contested topics. The Latter-day Saint families I know run the gamut on what they deem appropriate Sunday activities.

And while the LDS Church offers guidelines, it allows for an enormous amount of latitude in Sabbath Day observance. When we start pointing fingers at one another, we are no better than the Pharisees who looked down their noses at Christ.

For me, Sunday is usually a day of delight. In its limitations, I find the Sabbath the most freeing day of the week. I don’t have to shop for groceries or run kids to activities. I don’t scrub bathrooms. Sunday has become a day for God, family and close friends, to enjoy the company of others.

I loved this entry written by the staff of the site My Jewish Learning about the Jewish observance of Shabbat. It echoes the way I feel about our Sabbath as well:

“Yes, there are certainly a lot of restrictions with this type of observance. But what many people find so comforting and warm about Shabbat is the way that communities come together to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

“Traditional Shabbat observance isn’t for everyone, but for many people it is an important and refreshing part of the week. At the very least, it’s nice to take a 25-hour break from checking your email.”

On days when the proverbial ox is in the mire, I find I miss the calm and peace that comes from having a day when things are done differently, attending church services and spending anchored time with family.

Which is a good reminder to me to always keep an eye out for that ox, but maybe it’s time to shrink the mire.