Dressed in their Sunday best, families make their leisurely way to church for Holy Mass. Everything speaks of rest and relaxation.
What a difference between this bucolic scene and the reality of modern metropolises!… Let us imagine any of our cosmopolitan cities with millions of inhabitants. The Sunday sun rises promisingly, yet enormous building, vying for space, obstruct the rays from reaching the apartment windows. Thick smog blurs the skyline; the incessant movement and noise of vehicles will carry on even into the night.
If we were to stop a hurried citizen on the street and tell him that it was Sunday, he might stare at us with surprise at having been interrupted for a few moments from his moneymaking activities. He has no time to lose… not even on Sunday.
On the seventh day, you shall not do any work
Nature does not share the unbridled pace of today’s cities. Rather, it observes a wise alternation between activity and repose. When dawn breaks, the flowers open, the birds sing and nature hums with vitality. But at nightfall creatures return to silence and serenity.
Not even the human soul escapes this cycle. Yet, the soul will only encounter its true repose in the Beatific Vision. In the presence of the Author of all consolation alone will it feel fully relieved of its labours and concerns. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Ps 42:2). Nothing, then, could be more useful to us during our short earthly pilgrimage, than to have certain days dedicated exclusively to religion, as a beneficial anticipation of eternal repose in the blessedness of Heaven.
If even God “rested from all His work which He had done” and “rested from all His work […] in Creation” (Gn 2:2-3), why not follow His example? A fortiori when this concerns not just an attitude to be imitated, but a clearly expressed order: “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, […] for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day” (Ex 20:9-11).
The supernatural purpose of the Sabbath
For the Israelites, the Chosen People of the Old Covenant, the day dedicated to the Lord was the Sabbath, a word meaning repose in Hebrew.
Now, in the time of Jesus, the Scribes and Pharisees began interpreting this precept of the law with excessive rigidity, reducing it almost exclusively to its material aspects. This deviation was the reason for the Divine Master’s recriminations, and for the hatred of the Doctors of the Law to whom He had revealed Himself as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Lk 6:5). He once questioned them in the Synagogue: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” (Lk 6:9), and he cured the poor man with the withered hand, making His goodness and omnipotence shine forth in contrast with the Pharisaic hypocrisy.
More than the material aspects of Sabbatical repose, Christ emphasized the supernatural finality of the third precept of the Decalogue, forgotten by the Scribes and Pharisees: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex 20:8).
Sunday, plenitude of the Sabbath
In the New Covenant, the day of obligation went on to be Sunday, while Saturday, as the Angelic Doctor teaches, was dedicated to the glorious Virgin Mary, for it was on this day in which Christ lay dead in the sepulchre that her faith remained intact.1
As the first day of the week, Sunday recalls the first creation; but as the eighth day, after the Sabbath, it signifies the new creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ. For this reason we read in the Catechism: “In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish Sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ.”2
The observance of Sunday, St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “took the place of the observance of the Sabbath, not by virtue of the precept but by the institution of the Church and the custom of Christian people. For this observance is not figurative, as was the observance of the Sabbath in the Old Law. Hence the prohibition to work on the Lord’s day is not so strict as on the Sabbath: and certain works are permitted on the Lord’s day which were forbidden on the Sabbath, such as the cooking of food […] because the figure pertains to the protestation of truth, which it is unlawful to omit even in small things; while works, considered in themselves, are changeable in point of place and time.”3
Therefore, it is not just resting as in the Old Law, but refraining “from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.”4
The Third Commandment of the Law of God
The three first Commandments of the Law of God are intimately united to the virtue of Religion, which is, according to Father Royo Marin, “the first and most excellent of the moral virtues, including even the cardinal virtues.”5 Through the fulfillment of the first (to love God above all things), we honour Him with the love of our heart; by the second (do not take the Lord’s name in vain), with our lips; and by the third (keep holy the Lord’s day), we express this love to Him through our actions.6
Holy Church teaches us that the Third Commandment “observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship ‘as a sign of His universal beneficence to all.’”7 And this is why it obliges us to take part in the Eucharistic Celebration on Sunday itself or the previous evening, under pain of committing serious sin if we fail to do so.8 This excludes dispensation granted by legitimate authority because of serious impediment—such as, for example, the need to economically support the family—or the fulfillment of duties aimed at the common good, such as medical duty or military service.
Therefore, along with not missing Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation (such as Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, etc.) we should abstain from servile work. But most importantly, during the seven days of the week and especially on Sunday, we are obliged to avoid at all costs the vilest of works, called sin, because “every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34).
Third Commandment and the cardinal virtues
The cult of speed and the frenzy for profit—effects of the industrial revolution—exacerbated a series of tendencies that undermined the balance of the human soul. Without directly attacking Faith, Hope and Charity, they make it difficult to practice the cardinal virtues: Justice, Temperance, Fortitude and Prudence.
The virtue of Justice, from which that of Religion is derived, obliges us to give each being its due—especially God. Temperance moderates the attraction for pleasure, assures the control of the will over the instincts and keeps the desires within honest limits. Fortitude sustains the soul in moments of difficulty, giving it strength to resist temptations and the power to overcome obstacles. And finally, Prudence helps us to discern the true good and to choose the proper means to attain it.
Therefore, is it not an act of perfect justice to dedicate at least one day of the week to the Author of time and of life? What could be more temperate than resting from profane occupations and elevating the soul’s sights to heavenly realities? Is fortitude not necessary for man to pause and examine his behaviour over the past week, to acknowledge his faults and to make the firm resolution to amend his life? And those who proceed in this manner show themselves to be truly prudent, opting to follow the course that keeps them in the friendship of God, the true and absolute Good. ◊
1 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Les Commandements. Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1970, p.121.
2 CCC 2175.
3 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica. II-II, q.122, a.4, ad.4.
4 CCC 2185.
5 ROYO MARÍN, OP, Antonio. Teología Moral para seglares: moral fundamental y especial. 7.ed. Madrid: BAC, 2007, v.I, p.329.
6 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, Les Commandements, op.cit., p.115.
7 CCC 2176.
8 Cf. CCC 2180-2181.