How Should We Keep the Sabbath?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Fr. William Saunders

I was wondering if you could comment about the true meaning and implications of keeping the Sabbath in our very complex and busy modern times.—A reader in McLean

The Third Commandment given by God to Moses clearly stated, "Remember to keep holy Sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you. In six days the Lord made the heavens and earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day He rested. That is why the Lord has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy" (Ex 20:8-11).

While the Sabbath commemorated God's day of rest during the seven-day creation account of Genesis, it was also sacred because of what God has done for His people when He liberated them from slavery in Egypt: "For remember that you too were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you from there with His strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why the Lord, your God, has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day" (Dt 5:15). Therefore, the Sabbath was not only one day of rest and refreshment for everyone, being mindful of the many blessings received through creation, but also a day of remembering the covenant He had made with His people through the Passover sacrifice and the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The Sabbath was indeed the Day of the Lord.

For Christians the "Sabbath" rest was transferred to the first day of the week—Sunday, the day Our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For us, Sunday marks the day of the new creation, when Christ conquered sin, darkness and death. Sunday marks the day of the new covenant when Christ, the High Priest who offered Himself as the unblemished Passover lamb of sacrifice on the altar of the cross, gave the promise of everlasting life. Therefore, Sunday is the fulfillment of the Sabbath of the Old Testament. St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) wrote, "Sunday, indeed, is the day on which we hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and matter, created the world; and our Savior, Jesus Christ, arose from the dead on the same day.

Despite our very complex and busy modern times, we must strive to keep the "Sabbath Day"—Sunday—holy. Our first priority is to worship God publicly by participating at holy Mass. Since the days of the Apostles, the Church community has gathered together on Sunday to attend Mass. The <Code of Canon Law> logically mandates, "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass" (No. 1247). This obligation makes perfect sense. Following St. Thomas Aquinas' thought, we have a moral obligation to give visible, public and regular worship to the God who created all things, including ourselves; who has blessed us in many ways; and who saved us from sin. Just as we attend to our material and physical concerns—such as getting proper sleep, food, exercise and hygiene—we must attend to the well-being of our souls through prayer and public worship.

While this is a precept of our Church, we should consider it a privilege to attend Mass. We gather as a Body of Christ sharing a common unity of faith and baptism which overrides any ethnic, cultural or other difference. At Mass, we affirm our identity as a Roman Catholic Christian. We are nourished through the Word of God proclaimed in sacred Scripture and explicated by the priest. We are then plunged into the mystery of Christ's passion, death and resurrection, and nourished again through a sharing in His sacred Body and Blood in the holy Eucharist. When "Mass has ended" and we have given thanks, we then go on to our regular routine and our busy world, but we take Jesus with us. The ending really marks a beginning. The Mass becomes the launch-pad for the rest of the week.

I think that those who disregard the obligation of attending Sunday Mass for some frivolous reason or lame excuse either do not understand what they are missing or have their priorities out of order. God must come first—not soccer or baseball, the shopping mall or bed. We cannot play games with God and say, "Oh, God will understand. I can pray in my heart." God is God and we are His creatures. Unless we are sick, facing an emergency or have some other serious reason, we owe God His due worship.

If we consider ourselves part of the Church, it is only right to worship as part of the Church. To fail in this obligation is to commit a grave sin (<Catechism>, No. 2181). I often think of so many people who lived under communism and risked the loss of freedom, job opportunities and education just to attend Mass. What good excuse to we have to skip Mass? How blessed we are in this country to be able to worship freely and easily.

If Mass seems "boring" and not as exciting as some other activity, maybe the problem is that the person is not putting enough effort into it. We ought to arrive ahead of time to collect our thoughts and focus on God, to pay attention to the readings and sermon, to pray the Eucharistic prayer with the priest, to receive holy Communion wholeheartedly and to give thanks for what we have received.

I fear too many people are like "pew potatoes" instead of active worshippers. In an anonymous sermon of the very early Church, the faithful were admonished, "Tradition preserves the memory of an ever-timely exhortation: Come to church early, approach the Lord and confess your sins, repent in prayer...Be present at the sacred and divine liturgy, conclude its prayer and do not leave before the dismissal...We have often said, 'This day is given to you for prayer and rest. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.'"

The second priority of the Sabbath is to take time for personal rest and for those that we love. In our fast-paced world, sometimes Sunday becomes "catch-up" day—of running to the store, doing laundry and the like. Granted, sometimes we have no choice in the matter. However, we should restructure our lives and strive to accomplish those tasks during the rest of the week. Then we can take good leisurely time for ourselves. All of us need time to read, think, meditate and talk with God in the quiet of our hearts.

Sunday should be a family-oriented day. Unfortunately, many families lead fragmented lives, with people running in different directions. Some families seem more like a bunch of people living under the same roof than a real family living in a home. We need to enjoy our loved ones' company and take time to share our lives with them.

We should also think of our "extended family"—Sunday should also be a day for charitable activities, such as visiting the sick or elderly, especially elderly relatives who know the burden of being alone.

In our very complex and bust modern times, we need to make Sunday the Lord's Day. Voltaire (d. 1791), the great critic and attacker of the Church, said, "If you want to kill Christianity, you must abolish Sunday." Sadly, many have abolished Sunday on their own by how they live their lives, and in so doing, have abolished the presence of God in their lives. We would all be much better off if we were mindful of Sunday as a day for worshipping God as a Church, praying to Him and sharing ourselves and our love with our families.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the May 25, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.