Keeping the Sabbath day holy would seem basic to the Christian faith, since it’s the 4th Commandment. Yet few Christians – even committed ones – agree in how to carry this out. What was God getting at when He delivered this commandment as one of the 10 Big Ones, regarded by Jews and Christians alike as basic to living a godly life? That issue has become a minor crusade of mine.
As Catholics, of course, an essential element of keeping the Sabbath is to attend Mass every Sunday (or the Mass of anticipation on Saturday evening). It is clear that the Eucharist (referred to as “the breaking of the bread”) was an essential part of the earliest Christian worship:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
In another passage (Acts 20:7), we learn that the Eucharist was celebrated on Sunday (“the first day of the week”):
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…
St. Justin Martyr, writing in 150 A.D., confirms that the Eucharist was celebrated weekly by all Christians, on the Christian Sabbath, Sunday (“the Lord’s day”). (Christians had shifted the Sabbath from Saturday, the traditional Jewish Sabbath, to Sunday, to honor the day of the Lord’s resurrection.)
Yet most Christians do not celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, as essential to early Christian practice as this was. Denominations vary widely in how often the Eucharist (or communion, or the Lord’s Supper) is celebrated: from when the pastor feels so moved, to annually, to monthly, to every Sunday, to (with Catholic and Orthodox Christians) daily celebrations. Only Catholics and Orthodox Christians hold Sunday church attendance (which for them, always includes the Eucharist) to be obligatory. Other denominations see Sunday worship (with or without the Eucharist) as helpful and not to be taken lightly, but not obligatory. So Christians disagree, then, about what “keeping the Sabbath holy” means, on even this fundamental level.
Even among devout Catholics, how the Sabbath is kept varies widely, beyond attending Mass. However, Catholic teaching is clear on the subject. The Catechism teaches that Sunday is a “day of grace and rest”, and elaborates thus:
2184 Just as God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,” human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.
2185 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.123 Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.
The above stress on refraining from non-necessary work is not a Catholic invention. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly refer to violation of the Sabbath as a serious offense against God. Many of Jesus’ controversies with the Pharisees revolved around how to keep the Sabbath: Jesus clarified that works of mercy were not to be neglected, on the Sabbath or otherwise. And certain occupations – in the police or fire department, utilities, etc. – obviously can’t stop on Sunday. But as outlined above, Christians set apart Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, in a unique way. Ironically, although far less commonly than 50 years ago, there are still “blue laws” in regions of the United States, prohibiting retail outlets to be open on Sundays, or liquor to be sold – to honor the Sabbath!
Unfortunately, for the majority of Christians, including Catholics, Sunday has become “catch-up” day for those chores we weren’t able to get to during the rest of the week; e.g., mowing the lawn appears to be a favored Sunday task. A more recent culprit for disturbing the Sabbath rest is children’s sports practices and games. I believe that we have been evangelized by the surrounding culture, that equates worth with productivity. We have lost the rhythm of work and rest that God modeled for us at the very dawn of creation, and around which the life of devout Jews and early Christians revolved.
From the start of our marriage, Mary and I set up some guidelines to try and keep that God-given rhythm. We are “sold on the Sabbath”: keeping it has been a very fruitful part of our marriage and family life. Besides attending Mass, we spend Sunday as a family day: generally, no visitors or outside socializing, except for some special occasions. Beyond meal prep and cleanup, NO WORK is allowed. Keeping to “no work” was truly an act of faith during my doctoral program: I had thousands of pages of reading, dozens of papers, and the endless thesis and dissertation to work on. I at first thought that not studying or writing on Sunday would simply cram the rest of the week with work, resulting in more stress. Instead, Sunday became an island of peace, prayer, and leisure to look forward to. No matter how hard the rest of the week was, I knew I’d have a break.
Refraining from unnecessary work on the Sabbath isn’t a practice in Pharisaical legalism. It is an act of faith in the Lord: a tithing of our time. Tithing money is based on trust in God’s loving provision, the knowledge that God cannot be outdone in generosity. To tithe our earnings is to believe that God will provide all that we need, and often much of what we want, financially. Similarly, if we “tithe” our time by keeping the Sabbath, we are trusting that God will multiply our time in such a way that we have more leisure not only on Sunday, but during the rest of the week. With tithing of time, as with money, we recognize that every moment, like every penny, is a gift from God. He owns all of it, and it is right that we give Him the firstfruits of it. He has promised to take care of us in return.
Keeping the Sabbath also recognizes that what I do is not so essential that the world will drag to a halt if I “come aside and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). Endless busy-ness keeps us from “stopping and smelling the roses”, enjoying leisure and, as the Cathechism notes, taking time to connect with family and friends. If you do not already have this practice, I urge you and your family to start. We and those we know who have done so have never regretted it.