Why did God command Sabbath worship and rest in the first place? And why do we resist it?
What are we most unwilling to say to God? I suspect it might be, “You are worth my time.” I say that because for decades I’ve heard many excuses—some of them ingenious—for “getting out of” our Sunday obligation, or “fulfilling” our Sunday obligation, but not really. “Father, I’ll be going to my cousin’s wedding Mass at noon on Saturday, so that means that I’m off the hook for Sunday, right?” Or, “Father, when’s the last possible moment I can arrive at Mass and when’s the first possible moment I can leave Mass and still have met my obligation?”
And matters get more complicated among those who’ve discovered that “Sunday obligation” includes not only Mass but some sense of “Sabbath rest,” and, based on conversations I’ve had over the years, no one knows what that means, except it might have something to do with avoiding “servile work.” Unfortunately, the scrupulous latch on to this concern with a myopic clarity, leading to knock-down, drag-out fights on Sunday about whether the Sabbath rest is violated by taking out the stinking trash or buying batteries for Grandma’s hearing aids.
Doesn’t all this strike you as bizarre? It seems that oh-so-many people believe, “Sunday means you have to show up and pretend how glad you are that God is God or he will damn you to hell!” And it seems that oh-so-many people believe, “If you don’t relax properly on Sunday, God will damn you to hell—so just chill out!” Can we admit that most of us need to adjust our understanding and living of the Third Commandment and keeping holy the Sabbath?
How did our view of Sunday worship and rest become such a grim affair of joyless calculation, scheming and scruples? If a married friend said, “Ugh! I have to spend time with my spouse today! I can’t get out of it, but I hope I can keep it to a minimum!,” we’d worry about the state of that marriage. What does it say about us when we say, “Ugh! I have to spend time with God today! I can’t get out of it, but I hope I can keep it to a minimum!”? The irony is that when spend time like drunkards when it comes to the world (e.g., television, social media, etc.) and hoard it like misers when it comes to God (e.g., “Why does Mass take so long?”). At root, we won’t get the Third Commandment right—that is, it won’t be a source of grace, it won’t inform and transform our lives—unless we’re clear about why God commands Sabbath worship and rest in the first place.
We are made from and for love. God made us from his absolute generosity; he redeemed us with the blood of his son when we rejected that generosity; he calls us to what is best for us, which is God himself. If we live that truth in this life (through worship of God and charity towards neighbor) then we can celebrate that truth eternally in Heaven. If our hearts and lives are not shaped by gratitude, worship, and charity, then we will enter eternity unprepared for the life of Heaven. Thus the obligations to worship and to rest are simply declarations of the undeniable facts about God and man: 1) God is creator; 2) We are his children; 3) We are made not just for time but for eternity.
Sunday worship and Sabbath rest are meant to be life-giving reminders of God’s greatness and our dignity. God offers us freedom from the slavery of sin and from the tyranny of idolatry. What if we recognized the true horrors that God is saving us from? What if we recognized the true glories that God is calling us to? What would our Sundays look like then?
So many of us, it seems, expect so little of God, expect even less for ourselves, and desire so much from the world. Do we act as if we believe God has anything good to say or offer to us? Do we act as if we believe that we’re made for glory? Do we act as if the world can never satisfy us? Those questions need to be asked and answered if we’re to retrieve what God and the Church teach us about Sunday worship and Sabbath rest.
Between now and Sunday, pray about these questions:
1) What must be true about God to be worthy of worship?
2) What must be true about us, that we are commanded to rest?
3) How must our lives change so that the Third Commandment is a joy and not a burden?
When I write next, I’ll offer another reflection on reclaiming the Ten Commandments in our times. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.