Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Remember the Sabbath Day

The following are notes for my presentation on the Third Commandment, as interpreted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to the postulants.

The Third Commandment
(Part Three, Sect. Two, Chap. One, Art. 3)

Remember the sabbath day—keep it holy. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God. You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the 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. Exodus 20:8-11 (New American Bible Revised Edition)


Article 3: The Third Commandment

I.                     The Sabbath Day
II.                   The Lord’s Day
A.    The day of the Resurrection: the new creation
B.    Sunday – fulfillment of the sabbath
C.    The Sunday Eucharist
D.    The Sunday obligation
E.     A day of grace and rest from work


1. The sabbath is a day of solemn rest, holy to the Lord.
By it we recall the mysteries of creation and liberation from bondage.
We keep the sabbath as the sign of God’s covenant with us.

2. For Christians, Sunday replaces the sabbath and fulfills its spiritual truth.
The sabbath represents the first creation, completed on the seventh day.
Sunday recalls the new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ.
Sunday, the first day, is the “eighth day,” the Lord’s Day. In the spirit of the sabbath, we celebrate our Creator and Redeemer on this day.

3. To observe the commandment, the Church decrees: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. 
According to canon law, “Sunday … is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.”
On Sunday the faithful rest from their labors in order to worship God, to rejoice in the Lord’s Day, to perform works of mercy, and to relax in mind and body.

4. “Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day” (para. 2187).
The people of God must work together to sanctify Sundays and holy days.
Christians should urge employers and public officials to recognize the faithful’s right to observe the Lord’s Day and have their rest. 

Questions and Reflections

The Sabbath Day

What hit me hardest? The sabbath is “a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (para. 2172). I like the image of sabbath as a day of protest! In Exodus 5 we have Moses and Aaron petition Pharaoh to release the Israelites from their labors so they can have a feast for God. When Pharaoh refuses, the Israelites go on permanent strike! In the prophets we have many admonitions on true and false worship, with implications for good sabbath-keeping. I like Isaiah 58, which condemns the fasting of those who “drive all your laborers” and teaches that true fasting is doing works of justice and mercy for the poor. In my days as a community organizer I worked with congregations whose worship suffered because many of their members could not attend on Sunday because of work obligations. For a time, the Massachusetts Council of Churches mounted a public awareness campaign called “Take Back Your Time.”

What was most challenging? “If God ‘rested and was refreshed’ on the seventh day, man too ought to ‘rest’ and should let others, especially the poor, ‘be refreshed’ ” (para. 2172). People don’t want to hear this. That goes against the grain of the American Dream, where you are supposed to work harder than everybody else to get ahead and be blessed. If you are poor, it’s because you are lazy and don’t want to work. You don’t deserve a break because you do nothing and are nothing!

What would be most difficult to explain? “Scripture also reveals in the Lord’s day a memorial of Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt” (para. 2170). Creation was completed on the seventh day; therefore the sabbath is on the seventh day. The relation between the Exodus and sabbath is less obvious. You have to show how God saved Israel in order to free Israel to praise God and God’s work of creation. The sabbath is a “sign of the irrevocable covenant” (para. 2171). The sabbath is about being God’s faithful people. In our individualistic society it is hard to sell the idea that this solemn day of rest isn’t just about taking your personal ease.

How does world need to hear this?
Through education and example. By their behavior, Christians must subvert the “work hard, play hard” mentality of our culture.

What situations need this as good news?
In any place where workers suffer from oppressive labors and work schedules that prevent them from practicing their faith, pursuing education, raising their family, and contributing to community life. In workplaces where there is an unhealthy culture of workaholism. In societies where a culture of vain pleasure-seeking substitutes for genuine leisure. In dysfunctional households where inattention, ingratitude, and lukewarmness betray a life centered in things other than God.

The Lord’s Day

What hit me hardest? “The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health” (para. 2185). The pursuit of good things can and often does usurp the pursuit of great things. This is especially true in the United States. We pursue lesser goods with an inordinate appetite and fall into vice. Thus our leisure becomes wanton pleasure; rest becomes sloth; relaxation becomes idleness; enjoyment becomes hedonism; mercy becomes self-indulgence; and worship becomes self-worship. Scripture lifts up the sabbath as a release from the compulsions of work; our rest should also be free of compulsions and embody a dimension of real freedom. Tradition promotes Sunday as a whole day of rest. We can learn from Jewish sabbath practices how to take our time—to connect deeply with the Spirit and our community of faith. We must become more intentional about cultivating good sabbath-keeping practices, and not only in the cultic aspects. “Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day” (para. 2187). See the last two questions, below.

What was most challenging? “You cannot pray at home as at church … where there is something more” (St. John Chrysostom, quoted in para. 2179). What exactly is the “something more”? This requires a defense of the parish as the normative and authoritative location of Christian community. It requires both a sound theology of the Church and the good example of parishes everywhere as vibrant communities of Jesus’ disciples. “[T]he faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (para. 2180). “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (para. 2181). What about those who have been abused by ministers of the Church or traumatized by their experiences in Christian communities? What about persons who have turned away from Church because of poor liturgies? These are practical and pastoral concerns. On a theological level, how do we justify the connection between the commandment, which is divine law written by the finger of God, and the letter of canon law, church law written by humans? I pose the question in the interest of those who accept the spirit of the sabbath but challenge the letter of the Sunday obligation.

What would be most difficult to explain? Sunday replaces the sabbath and fulfills the truth of the Jewish sabbath (para. 2175). I think it is difficult to explain how the Lord’s Day is fulfillment of the sabbath when it is not the sabbath itself. Didn’t the first followers of Jesus observe both the sabbath day and the Lord’s Day? This teaching can pose a stumbling block to interreligious dialogue between Jews and Christians. Is the Church saying the Jewish sabbath is inferior, even obsolete?

How does world need to hear this?
Through an ecumenical and interfaith effort; “Sanctifying Sundays and holy days requires a common effort” (para. 2187). Not only Christians, but also Jews and Muslims as well as communities of faith from the Eastern traditions must collaborate for a common cause. It is not a given that a pluralistic society will necessarily be a society that is tolerant or accepting of the liberties of religious communities. Good citizenship in a postmodern democratic society requires religious literacy, which will foster an appreciation of the contributions of religious groups to the common good, and a greater respect for the traditions of those communities.

What situations need this as good news?
Employer-employee relations, followed by public authority-citizen relations. Business leaders and political leaders have a moral obligation to respect the dignity of the person whose freedom to worship takes precedence over their claims upon him or her as a worker or a citizen.

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