When God delivered The Ten Commandments to our Jewish ancestors, it was during the time that He also delivered them from slavery in Egypt and accompanied them to a promised land. He initiated and fulfilled their liberation so that they could live their true identity. Their identity was not as slaves, not primarily as laborers for earthly matters; their primary identity was as God’s people who work for heavenly matters in the ultimate promised land. The first three Commandments have to do with our relationship with God, while the other seven pertain to our relationship with one another. The third commandment is to “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Six day 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…”
God commands us to put down our tools, instruments, currencies, and other equipment of business on the Sabbath, and all that associates us as slaves to earthly work, so we can remember our true identity as His people. It is a wonderful and beautiful unfolding of our weekly cycle. Unfortunately, many Catholics interpret the Commandment much narrower. Whereas God says, “Keep holy the Sabbath,” there is a Catholic precept that states, “Go to Mass on Sunday (and make sure you don’t arrive after the Gospel or leave before Communion).” Whereas God essentially says, “Renew your identity as My people” (on the Sabbath), the Catholic Church essentially says, “Go to Mass or go to hell.” As a priest, I hear an unending stream of mortal fear in the confessional. Every time someone confesses, “Father, I have sinned—I missed Mass on Sunday,” I ask, “Did you keep the Sabbath holy?” As a Catholic official, I understand the value of Mass attendance and church law, but I also know they don’t rank as high as honoring God’s law.
In May of 2020, Bishop Johnston of Kansas City-Saint Joseph wrote a wonderful pastoral letter for us to study and follow entitled Keeping The Lord’s Day. This directive on the importance of Sunday in the life of every Christian disciple challenges us to better understand the Sabbath, our Sunday commitment to God, and to live it in ways that honor Him and our identity as His people. Parish school families are probably most aware of it because we no longer play parochial sports on Sundays. But all people should hearken. It makes suggestions, and encourages conversation, for how to set aside instruments of labor so we can give attention to our relationship with the Lord. It offers reflections on decorating our homes and readying ourselves for the Sabbath as well as praising the magnificent cathedral of creation surrounding us in nature. It encourages parish groups to discuss how we might act as a family of faith on His day in accord with God’s parenting. You can find the document online at the Diocesan Catholic Center or I could get a copy of it for you if you contact me at Saint Charles.
We won’t be perfect in our Sunday tributes. We might argue that priests labor on Sundays or that those who love their jobs are relaxing more than working. We can argue that abolition of Blue Laws has helped local economies and made it easier for the majority to rest. We can argue that parishioners shouldn’t be exchanging money on the Lord’s Day for Boy Scout pancake breakfasts or the myriad of requests that greet us at churches. We can argue that the Sunday Obligation should be re-presented as Sunday Opportunities to better reflect God’s intent for us. Despite our imperfections, it is a good thing to contemplate the Sabbath, our true identity as God’s people, the virtue of setting aside materials of labor on Sundays, and what it means to honor the Lord in devoted ways from sunrise to sunset on His day. It is a beautiful weekly commemoration. As God says, “Remember it…”