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The Sunday obligation

30 November, 1999

James D. writes: Dear Father, The Catholic Church insists so much on attendance at Sunday Mass that it seems as if this is the top priority for members. Are other aspects of Christian life not of greater importance? Fr Bernard McGuckian SJ replies.

A loving heart expresses itself differently and appropriately depending upon who is loved. A woman loves her husband as wife and her children as mother.

We all know the famous answer Jesus gave when he was asked to name the greatest commandment of the Law. ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second resembles it: you must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets also’ (Mt 22: 34-40).

In this answer Jesus makes it clear that God must come first in every human life. Attention to God is not an optional extra or simply an afterthought. We are to give Him our `all’. Jesus simply quoted the teaching of the Scriptures which insisted on the word ‘all’, using it no less than three times: all your heart, all your soul and all your mind (Deut 6:5). It is only when he has made this clear that he mentions the second commandment which resembles, but does not replace, the first. If this inversion of priorities does take place, there is a real risk of ending up with a travesty of Christianity and indeed of all religion: to do good and avoid God. Sadly, this would seem to be the motto of a considerable number of people.

From its earliest beginnings the Christian Church realised that the urgent demand of the Lord to give him our ‘all’ was to be given definite shape and form. To the first members there was nothing radically new in this, as all of them were Jews. It was only in Antioch, a few years after the Resurrection, that these believers were first called Christians, to distinguish them from other Jews. They simply carried on with the prayers and practices on which they had been brought up.

A pious and prayerful people, they accepted the implications of the Covenant that God had made with them which required daily prayer and ritual sacrifice at specific times. These prayers and the different types of sacrifice were based on the Law of Moses and the teachings of the Prophets as handed down to them in their scriptures. It was nothing exceptional to know all 150
psalms off by heart. It was normal practice to go up at least once a year to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice in the Temple. Like everyone else, Mary and Joseph along with their son, Jesus, fulfilled this obligation.

The big change for these people came on the morning of Pentecost, when over 5000 of them were ‘cut to the heart’ (Acts 2:37), and accepted Peter’s claim that Jesus, who had been crucified some weeks earlier, was not only the long-awaited Messiah foretold by the Prophets, but that he had truly risen from the dead. In the light of this new development, the message of the Bible took on hitherto unsuspected dimensions.

One important event contributing to a new way of reading the scriptures was the episode on the way to Emmaus. Two disappointed disciples reported how they had recognised the Risen Jesus at the breaking of bread and ‘starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout scripture that were about himself’ (Lk.24:27).

A big shock was in store shortly afterwards for these believers that would change the course of religious history. Some, but not all, were expelled from their local synagogue (cf Jn 9:22), and thus had to find another way to continue the practice of the faith they had been reared on. All, however, were developing new forms of worship.

Subsequently, their religious practice developed into what we have come to know as the Sunday Mass. This act of worship, understood as the perfect fulfilment of the Third Commandment to ‘keep holy the Sabbath Day’, incorporated elements of the Passover, the temple sacrifices and the traditional prayers with the new realities of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. This practice would become what is now a non-negotiable of Catholicism.

What the two commandments referred to by Jesus have in common is love. There are not two loves. A loving heart expresses itself differently and appropriately depending upon who is loved. A woman loves her husband as wife and her children as mother. Her love as wife is exclusive and cannot be shared without being vitiated at its source. It is different in the case of her love for her children. Her love for each child is in no way diminished because she has more than one. Johnny is no less loved because she loves Mary and Paddy as well as Anna, who might well be her adopted child.

The love of a wife for her husband has some of the characteristics of the love each one of us must have for God and clearly demanded by Him. ‘First I am the Lord Thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before Me’ (Exodus 20:2). Indeed, Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Covenant was described in terms of adultery all through the Old Testament. God is a ‘jealous’ Lover who brooks no rivals! On the other hand, the love of a mother for her children is a model for the love each of us should have for our neighbour. It loses nothing in depth by being widely spread and shared.

Marriage Encounter Ireland, an organisation that helps couples enrich their relationships and improve communication, promotes a simple but profound truth: ‘The best thing that a man can do for his children is to love their mother’. It is also true that the best thing any of us can do for our neighbour is to love their God.

St Pascal Baylon, (1540-1592), a Franciscan brother and Patron of Eucharistic Congresses, did this so well that he was canonised for it. He prayed often that he might have the heart of a child for his God, the heart of a mother for his neighbour and the heart of a judge for himself. If we follow his example we will get our priorities right.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (April 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.