Contact Us

The Lord’s Day

30 November, 1999

Joe writes: Some Protestant denominations are almost as strict as the Jews about Sabbath observance. Why are Catholics so lax about it? Fr Bernard McGuckian replys.

During our time on earth, God wants us to serve him as faithfully as possible, according to the lights we have received, whether we are Catholics, Protestants or Jews. In the matter of Sabbath observance you could add Muslims. They also consider themselves bound by the Third Commandment given on Mount Sinai, a key element in the Law of Moses:

‘Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, 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’ (Ex.20:8-10).

The Sabbath for Muslims is Friday; for Jews, Saturday; and for Christians, Sunday. For each of these monotheistic religions their Sabbath is an unchanging fixed day of leisure. It is one day in every seven to be kept holy in a restrained and reflective way, while avoiding the extremes you term ‘strict’ or ‘lax’.

For a Catholic, attendance at Mass is the principal Sabbath duty. To ignore this Church precept on an ongoing basis, something that takes up, at most, one out of the twenty-four hours of the day, reveals an attitude closer to ‘lapsed’ than ‘lax’.

A Sabbath spirit should influence our activity during the other hours as well as that given to the Eucharistic sacrifice. The innocent enjoyment of sport, long a feature of Sunday life in Ireland, is acceptable as long as it does not militate against more fundamental aspects of the Sabbath.

One thing, however, that all the monotheistic religions consider inappropriate is servile work. This generally means laborious, earthbound work that can be put off until later without causing undue harm to anyone. The thronged shopping malls on Sundays are an indication of a dramatic change of attitude, reminiscent of Wordsworth’s sonnet.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

We have given our hearts away – a sordid boon.

Little we see in Nature that is ours.

The Sabbath was not ‘made for Man’ so that he could spend several hours ‘spending’, sometimes justified as a form of therapy after a hard week spent earning or replace his daily work, not with worship but with strenuous Sunday ‘work-outs’. Something different was envisaged for the Sabbath.

The good Jew, a model for the rest of us, was expected to use the Sabbath leisure for building up the spirit rather than the body. The principal means towards achieving this was the study of the scriptures, regarded not as work but as a joy by the Jew. One 20th century German Catholic writer, Joseph Pieper considered leisure the basis of all genuine culture and authentic religion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the very humane biblical basis for Sabbath leisure: ‘God’s action is a model for human action. If God “rested and was refreshed” on the seventh day, man too, ought to “rest” and should let others, especially the poor, be refreshed.’ The Sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude to work and the worship of money’ (CCC 2172).

Even the hard-working ancient Romans knew the importance of leisure. In fact, they considered leisure more important than work. Their Latin word for leisure was ‘otium’; the one for business transactions was the opposite of this, ‘negotium’ or the negation of leisure. In their perspective you did not rest simply in order to do your work better. It was the other way round. You worked hard so that you could really make the most of your leisure. This was anything but a prescription for idleness. Christianity carried this on.

For St. Thomas Aquinas, where religion was concerned, the person who was slothful during the working week could not really keep the Sabbath Day holy. His indolence meant that he had nothing of any great value, whether material, intellectual or spiritual to offer in sacrifice on Sunday.

In a world of total work where leisure is regarded as a necessary evil, grudgingly conceded, you end up with slavery all round. Arbeit macht Frei (‘work makes us free’), the cynical motto of the Nazi Concentration Camps, as well as the grinding inhumanity of the Soviet Gulags are both extreme examples of the absence of a Sabbath dimension to life.

There can be an element of this in much less dramatic situations. An old trade unionist once told me that he had spent his life struggling to ensure that his members did not have to work on Sundays while his daughter, a manager in a department store, had spent hers trying to undo all that he had done.

No freedom-loving person should welcome a situation where ‘all the hours that God gives’ are given to work. Yet it seems that some people find free time boring and instead of consecrating it with appropriate leisure activity, opt for a second job, even when there is no economic necessity. A small step in the right direction is the courageous decision taken recently by a Dublin owner of a large house-furnishing chain to opt for Sunday closing in all his outlets.

Weekly celebration of the Eucharist needs the underpinning of a well-founded appreciation of the Sabbath.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits..

Tags: ,