“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8). It seems that a commandment telling us to rest would be an easy one to follow. Being told to “take a break,” especially when it is God directing us to do so, would appear to provide a welcomed respite in our busy lives.
However, our secular culture and goal-driven society makes following even this commandment difficult. Sunday can easily become a “catch-up” day in order to complete those tasks we didn’t finish during the week. Or an excess of sporting activities offered on Sunday can distract us from the true meaning of “rest in the Lord.”
Handing on the Faith
While we may be tempted to justify a disregard for or minimize our adherence to this commandment, there are a lot of good reasons why we should take this commandment seriously.
Divine revelation shows us the value of work, but also the necessity of rest. The Book of Genesis describes how, after God completed his work of creation, he rested. Man, who is made in God’s image and likeness, is, thus, called to imitate his Creator. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath day to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 9-10).
Under the New Covenant, this day of rest and worship is celebrated on the day of Christ’s Resurrection — Sunday, the first day of the week. It is the day that Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to his apostles, and met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Sunday is the day of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost and the day of the first baptisms in the church. This day of the “new creation” is a foreshadowing of eternal life, or “the day without end” (cf. Dies Domini 19-26).
We can trust that God knows what is best for us by commanding us to observe a day of rest and worship. There are many benefits to be gained from the renewal that results when abstaining from work. There is the physical rest needed to refresh our tired bodies. As sleeping patterns indicate, the human body is designed for a minimum amount of rest each day. Carrying this pattern into our work week by taking one day to deviate from the physical demands of our job or household work contributes to a good rhythm of rest for our bodies.
Rest from work on the Lord’s Day is also important for authentic human development. When we leave behind the worries of the workplace and our daily chores, we are free to give ourselves over to a time of holy leisure and direct our thoughts toward others. We can grow more fully in our social relationships and through our cultural expressions. We have time to strengthen family bonds, respond to the needs of others, and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.
Sunday rest prevents us from becoming slaves to our work and being lured into the worship of money. It helps us keep work in its proper perspective. Such restraint from work also allows us to grow in our trust of God by recognizing our dependence upon him. It leads us to acknowledge that our work is not actually our own but a gift from God meant to be used for his glory.
The most important form of renewal attained through observation of the Lord’s Day is that of our spiritual renewal. With the celebration of Mass as the high point of Sunday, we are reminded that the Mass is the “source and summit” of our entire lives. We encounter the risen Lord, and we bring the joy of that encounter and the power of his sacrificial love back into the world. As I heard a Catholic school teacher recently say, “On Sundays, we fill up our tanks.”
Far from being a day of sloth or laziness, the rest commanded of us on the Lord’s Day is ordered to our growth in relationship with God and others.
As with all of the commandments, this has not been given to us as a hoop to jump through in order to get to heaven or a test to pass to determine if we are worthy enough. The commandments are laws from our Creator which help us grow in the ways of love.
Man’s ultimate fulfillment is found in a living relationship with God. By taking a day to focus intentionally and fully on God turns our hearts from the things of earth to the things of heaven.
I often find myself going through the week with a mental checklist, thinking about what I need to do next. I’ve come to realize that such a checklist can get in the way of listening to God. Sunday gives us the perfect opportunity to set aside our checklists and open ourselves more fully to God’s presence.
Such practices of trust and openness to the Lord on Sunday can, then, lead us to greater attentiveness to his presence throughout the entire week. (Those for whom family obligations or important social services require work on Sunday may need to make adaptations but should still ensure adequate time for rest and holy leisure.) Thus, let us use the opportunity we are given each week to become more and more who God has created us to be.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.