Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work…for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Ex 20:8-11)
The practice of keeping the Sabbath holy, which is simply our obedient response to God’s command, must be recovered if we are to regain our spiritual footing. Put simply, man needs Sunday. In the Gospel of Saint Mark Our Lord teaches that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27). While most Catholics understand the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, the additional call for rest is often forgotten or misunderstood. This inherent need for a dedicated day of rest is both natural and supernatural in purpose. As explained by Saint Thomas Aquinas:
We hope for rest from three things: from the labors of the present life, from the struggles of temptations, and from the servitude of the devil. Christ promised this rest to all those who will come to Him: “Come to Me, all ye that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you…”
A continued recovery of Sunday and its divinely ordained purpose is made all the more difficult by what we could call the heresy of “the weekend”. In the pursuit of leisure and recreation, an increasingly irreligious culture often views Sunday as little more than the second half of the weekend. This is even the case among many Catholics who, having fulfilled their obligation to hear Mass, see the remainder of the day as their own.
In his 1998 Apostolic Letter “Dies Domini” (The Lord’s Day), Pope St. John Paul II addresses this cultural shift in contemporary society:
Until quite recently, it was easier in traditionally Christian countries to keep Sunday holy because it was an almost universal practice and because, even in the organization of civil society, Sunday rest was considered a fixed part of the work schedule. Today, however, even in those countries which give legal sanction to the festive character of Sunday, changes in socioeconomic conditions have often led to profound modifications of social behavior and hence of the character of Sunday. The custom of the “weekend” has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days. This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects…unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a “weekend”, it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see “the heavens”…
While the Holy Father acknowledges these societal conditions, he refuses to capitulate. Instead, Saint John Paul II emphasizes the need for the faithful to recover an authentic understanding of the Lord’s Day:
The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy, and the “weekend”, understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation. This will require a genuine spiritual maturity, which will enable Christians to “be what they are”, in full accordance with the gift of faith, always ready to give an account of the hope which is in them (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). In this way, they will be led to a deeper understanding of Sunday, with the result that, even in difficult situations, they will be able to live it in complete docility to the Holy Spirit. (Dies Domini, 4)
Of course, the sanctification of Sunday manifests itself in different ways depending upon our Christian vocation, status in life, familial responsibilities and professional obligations. It is also important to stress that, while we as Catholics are working out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), we are not all at the same place in this journey. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy is not a one size fits all piety. That isn’t to say, however, that Holy Mother Church hasn’t given us guidance for ordering our day. Indeed, a clearer understanding of our Sunday obligation can be gleaned from Father Francis Spirago in his brilliant work The Catechism Explained:
We are bound on Sundays to abstain from servile work and to assist at public Mass; we ought, moreover, to employ this day in providing for the salvation of our soul, that is to say by approaching the sacraments, by prayer, by hearing sermons, reading spiritual books, and performing works of mercy. (p. 348).
An interesting insight into the sanctification of Sunday in the not too distant past comes from a 1955 essay entitled “The Land Without a Sunday” by Maria Von Trapp. The matriarch of the singing family made famous by the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music”, Von Trapp wrote of a pious faith practiced in the years just prior to the Second World War. As is often the case with things in life that are truly important, structure and ritual were essential. For the Von Trapp family, entering the weekly event of Sunday required devout preparation beginning the night before:
After the evening meal the rosary is said. In front of the statue or picture of the Blessed Mother burns a vigil light. After the rosary the father will take a big book containing all the Epistles and Gospels of the Sundays and feast days of the year, and he will read the pertinent ones now to his family. The village people usually go to Confession Saturday night, while the folks from the farms at a distance go on Sunday morning before Mass. Saturday night is a quiet night…People stay at home, getting attuned to Sunday.
Sunday is indeed a day provided for the salvation of our soul. Far from being simply an obligation or seemingly superfluous, the need to observe Sunday is foundational to our Catholic faith, providing the necessary rest we require both naturally and supernaturally. Our respite from the temporal on Sunday prefigures and reminds us of the heavenly rest we hope to know one day. Putting aside the secular notion of the weekend, may more faithful Catholics rediscover an authentic understanding of the Lord’s Day.