Sabbath rest has become foreign to our culture


The Third Commandment urges a most sensible thing which we instead routinely neglect. Sabbath rest for the Israelites was something so holy that the first of the two creation accounts of Genesis declares that God rested on the last day of the week of creation. God’s people’s idea of worship was resting, abstaining from the usual work that tends to wear people down. Behaving as though capitalism were the national religion, we rather obsess about busyness, as though rest was hostile to our money-generating work.
When I was a boy, classroom discussion of this commandment was impressive in its elaboration of what constituted work. I would not see anything as elaborate until my seminary courses in canon law, called by some “canine law” for its dogged pursuit of small and unheard of details. We learned that special circumstances allowed mothers to cook food and care for babies. We learned that any other work had to be no more than a hour’s length, and it had to be a kind of work different than the kind we did the rest of the week. As far as I can remember, no one objected to my doing school work for more than an hour if I did not get my homework done on Friday, as Mom always insisted. Thus anyone but a farmer could leisurely garden, since this was a relaxing hobby for many non-farmers.
In fact, those classroom discussions about the Sabbath requirements focused rather on attending Mass, where we learned that arriving late at Mass for a good reason before the Gospel, the first part of Mass in English then, was permissible. Likewise one had to wait till after Communion to leave early. Holy days of obligation also required Mass attendance under serious penalty, but it was only later, again in seminary studies, that I learned about the ingenious use of canon law for peoples’ benefit: in the Middle Ages, some bosses worked their people so hard that bishops declared more and more holy days of obligation so that people could get needed rest. Obscure saints filled the bill until there was a holy day nearly every week. I don’t think this would be received too well today.
In the United States we have only six, three of which do not obligate when they fall on Saturdays or Mondays. This is as of the early ’90s, decided by the bishops to help people and pastors who find it difficult to celebrate liturgies back to back. Those that require attendance no matter what day of occurrence are the Immaculate Conception of Dec. 8 (our national patronal feast), and Christmas. Those allowing the exception are the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God on Jan. 1, the Assumption of Mary on Aug. 15, and All Saints, Nov. 1. The Ascension falls on Thursday except for dioceses where the bishop transfers it to the next Sunday. Other countries, like Italy, have as many as 10, since they honor St. Joseph and since these days are legal, work-free holidays. Ireland obligates on St. Patrick’s on March 17, when by civil law all the pubs are closed.
My comment above about capitalism is the real point here. We have gradually allowed it to replace what used to be important. For instance, our faith teaches that money is necessary for life but it is not to become the mammon condemned by the Lord when he said we cannot serve God and it. In his time they may not have had Marx’s Das Kapital, but they were familiar with greed, the vice Jesus attacked in his parable about the rich man and Lazarus. We are so far adrift that we find little problem with incomes of rich and poor, of employer and employee being so skewed so across the board. We have lost sight of our binding obligation to the poor, who are made to suffer systemically because of this. Sabbath rest has become foreign to our culture. Many communities complain that youth sports make it hard to attend worship, yet little gets changed.
We are disciples not of Moses but of the new Moses, whose commandment demands love of God and neighbor. Do we pretend our obligation to the poor is fulfilled once we drop a few cents into the poor box? Yet justice to the poor comes before even our charity, which is news to many of us.
Since these things are so, the Second Amendment must be repealed.