The Importance of the Sabbath, 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), March 5, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Sunday of the Ninth Week, Year B
March 5, 2000
Dt 5:12-15; 2Cor4:6-11; Mk2:23-3:6

When Jesus was examined by the lawyer about the greatest of the 613 commandments of the Old Covenant, he responded that it was to love the Lord our God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength. He then volunteered the second greatest commandment, which he said was like it: to love your neighbor as yourself, saying that all of the Law and the Prophets hinges on these two. But one unasked question that I have always wished that the lawyer would have asked in follow-up that day would have been, “All right, Jesus, what’s third?” On the basis of everything he said, did and taught during his public ministry, I think that if Jesus would have said there was a third, it very likely would have been “Understand truly and keep holy the Sabbath day!”

The Sabbath was the cause of — you guessed it — SEVEN major disputes between him and the Pharisees, Scribes Herodians and Sadducees, including the one we read about in today’s Gospel. It was on the basis of Jesus’ teaching and healing on the Sabbath, as we just heard, that these groups first started to plot to kill Jesus. And hence, Jesus obviously thought his teaching by word and deed about the true meaning of the Sabbath against their misinterpretations was something worth dying for. It was that important for him. Why? I think ultimately because without a true understanding and living of the Sabbath, no one can truly keep the two greatest commandments and be Christ’s disciples, i.e., without properly keeping holy the Lord’s day, no one can truly love God, himself or herself, or others. Hence since the Sabbath is so important to Jesus, it should be just as important for us. It is fitting on this Christian Sabbath day, therefore, that we spend some time reflecting upon just why it is so important in God’s plan.

I was originally planning — since this is a Sunday, and therefore a time in which you have all day to pray and I have all day to preach — to give you, on the basis of my own reflections and those of the Holy Father in his recent Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, seven reasons why the Sabbath is so important, one in honor of each of you! But I don’t want you plotting with the Pharisees and Herodians to destroy me… Instead I’ll try to summarize the great treasure of the Church’s teaching on the importance of the Lord’s day into more manageable three headings, three you’ll easily remember, in the hope that it might give you something for your day-long conversation with the Lord. We’ll focus on how the Sabbath is a great gift of God to man to renew him in faith, in love and in hope.

So the first point: the Sabbath is a gift to renew us in faith. When we think about the centrality of Sunday in the faith, how can we not reflect on all that God has done on this day? Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday and appeared to Mary Magdalene. He then appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, made their hearts burn when they listened to his revelation, revealed himself to them in the Breaking of the Bread, and inspired them to go share that faith with the disciples in Jerusalem. He then visited the ten apostles in the Upper Room on the same day, and then all eleven with Thomas one week later, transformed his doubt into faith, breathed on the apostles and gave them power to forgive sins. The Holy Spirit likewise descended upon the Apostles and Mary on Pentecost Sunday, the Church was founded, and then Peter went to preach and about 3,000 received baptism.

When we turn to our own journey in the Christian faith, we can easily see the centrality of the Sabbath in it as well. Probably everyone of us was baptized on the Christian Sabbath. Probably everyone of us received the Lord in Holy Communion for the first time on the Sabbath as well. We proclaim the Creed every Sunday precisely because of the link between Sunday and our baptism wherein we or others for us proclaimed this faith in words and we proclaimed it in our death and resurrection from the font. The Christian Sabbath as well is the day par excellence of the expression of the Christian faith as a whole in the Eucharist. While we worship and receive the same Lord at weekday Masses, there is, as the Pope says, something distinctive about Sunday Mass, because it is on Sunday that the whole Christian community comes together in faith to give thanks to God for the wonders of creation (and our creation!) and most especially for our salvation, achieved for us in the paschal mystery we share in the Eucharist. Like God, who rested on the Sabbath in order to contemplate all of creation and pronounce it “good,” so the Christian is called on Sundays to look on all of God’s marvelous works, particularly the great gift of salvation offered him by Christ, and in similar contemplation of God’s big picture for him and world pronounce them good. It is therefore for good reason that the Church from the earliest centuries has called the Sunday Eucharist, Little Easter, because it summarizes for us all of salvation history.

The Christian sabbath is a gift made for man to renew him in faith, but so many men and women today have lost their faith in the gift of the Sabbath. Sunday Mass attendance is only about 25% in the States and about 7% here in Italy. Of those who still attend, a large portion looks at the Sunday obligation not as a gift, but as a sort of religious “tax” on their time by a Divine IRS agent — six days for you, one day, or at least 45 minutes, for me. For most, Sunday has become just an extension of the weekend, a day for diversion rather than conversion, time to watch athletes compete for fleeting championships rather than a time to be refreshed in one’s own marathon toward an imperishable crown. Even among priests, seminarians and religious, there has been a gradual secularization of Sunday. Sure, we add First and Second Vespers, a Second Reading and the Creed, but too many of us look toward Sunday as a nice block of time when we can get work done, rather than a day of days in which we can be worked upon by God.

So we need to return to the original meaning of the Sabbath. We find it in the first reading. After God commands the people of Israel, their slaves and their animals, to keep the Sabbath, he gives the reason for it. At first it even seems like a non-sequitur: “For remember that you were too once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, brought you from there with his strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why the Lord, your God, has commanded you to observe the Sabbath.” God ultimately gave the command of the Sabbath as a new exodus to set and keep his people free, free from all types of interior slavery, free in order to love him and love others. This is what the Scribes and Pharisees had forgotten, and why Jesus opposed them so much. They had made the Sabbath a day of slavery, hoisting unbearable burdens on the shoulders of others without lifting a finger to move them (Matt. 23:4). They used the Sabbath to oppress others, rather than set them free. They made it an end in itself — made “man for the Sabbath” — rather that saw it as a day made for man, a means to free man from the burdens of daily life. By his words and actions, Jesus brought the Sabbath back to its original meaning, inviting his followers who were weary and burdened to come to Him, who is the True Sabbath, so that he could give them rest for their bodies and their souls. He restored the Sabbath to its ultimate purpose, to free man from slavery to his material needs, worries and most importantly his sins, so that he can put God first in his life and therefore find his true primacy and dignity with respect to social and economic life. God gave the Sabbath to man so that man, through faith, could give himself back to God and thereby discover who he really is and the supreme destiny to which he is called.

This destiny to which man is called leads us to the second point: The Sabbath is a gift to renew us in love. The supreme calling of man is, in imitation of the Lord, to give of himself in love to God and to others, and the Sabbath helps us to do that. The Sabbath allows us to love God with all we’ve got and to love others as ourselves. How? By freeing us from most of our daily duties so that we can devote ourselves to concrete acts of love, to loving God and receiving his grace in the sacraments, by spending quality time with Him in prayer (as you’re doing today during this day of recollection) and by spending quality time loving the Lord in others, reaching out to those in need, who are elderly, or sick, or lonely, or in need of a real shot in the arm of faith, hope, or love.

Jesus is our model in everything, and he is our model in how to spend the Sabbath as well. When you look at how he spent the Sabbath day, we see clearly that Jesus used to go around doing good on the Sabbath, proclaiming the Good News, freeing all types of captives, and healing those in need. His example provides an examination of conscience for us as to how we spend the Sabbath. The sabbath is not just about us or just about our relationship with Jesus in the restricted sense. The Sabbath is also about going out to the world in peace to love and to serve the Lord, about bringing Jesus, his good news, and his healing to others. You may reply that you don’t have the gift of healing, but you’d be wrong. You may not have the gift of physical healing… yet… but, sisters, all of you, with Jesus, really do have the gift of being able to bring emotional and spiritual healing to those with withered hearts. Please don’t underestimate how Jesus, through you, can touch people. A simple smile from you can change someone’s whole day. A brief phone call or short letter telling someone you’re thinking about them and praying for them can be a great instrument of grace. Even just your joyful presence can have an extraordinary leavening effect. And we haven’t even mentioned the corporal works of mercy. Listen to the words of the Holy Father: “From the Sunday Mass there flows a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life of the faithful, beginning by inspiring the very way in which they live the rest of Sunday. If Sunday is a day of joy, Christians should declare by their actual behavior that we cannot be happy “on our own”. They look around to find people who may need their help, who … precisely on Sundays feel more keenly their isolation, needs and suffering.” These people, whoever they are, are gifts from the Lord to help us learn how to love him, love others, and love ourselves more, and Sunday is a privileged time when we have a chance to grow in this gift of ourselves to Him and to others. Let’s not bury this gift, but take advantage of it!

This focus on acts of love leads directly to the third and final point: The Christian Sabbath is a gift to renew us in hope. Our living of the Sabbath is in itself a powerful prophecy of the things for which we ultimately hope. From the beginning, the Fathers of the Church have looked upon the prophetic character of the Christian Sabbath, which was not observed on the seventh day, as it was for the Jews, but on the eighth day. On the seventh day, Jesus, the God-man, rested, rested from all the work he had done, contemplated it and called it good — while he lay in the tomb. But on the following day, the first of the week, he rose from the dead, and, basically this changed everything. They referred to it as the eighth day because it was day of a new creation, after the God-man had rested. The Israelites had prophesied by their observation of the Sabbath of the Lord that God is the Lord of time, of history, and of the Covenant of salvation from slavery in Egypt. They sang about the Sabbath in their psalms, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” What obtained for the Jews likewise obtains for the Christians, but Christ upped the ante. We are called to prophesy and proclaim by our living of the Christian Sabbath, the eighth day, that God is Lord of time, of history, of the New and Eternal Covenant freeing us from sin and for Him forever. We are called to sing “This is the Day the Lord has remade, has remade creation, has remade us. Let us rejoice and be glad in Him!”

Rejoice and be glad. This is what Christians are called to do on Sunday, and too few Christians really live this. Too many Christians seem begrudgingly to come to Mass, without smiles, without joys, but because they feel they “have to” be there and fear the eschatological consequences of Sunday truancy. It is not to be this way with us! We are called to live Sundays with joy! The Holy Father spends three whole paragraphs in Dies Domini describing the joy that needs to be characteristic of Sundays. Just like the apostles gathered in the upper room on that Sunday of Sundays and “rejoiced to see the Lord,” so we, too, are called to overflow with joy. Listen again to the Holy Father: “If we wish to rediscover the full meaning of Sunday, we must rediscover this [joyful] aspect of the life of faith. Certainly, Christian joy must mark the whole of life, and not just one day of the week. But in virtue of its significance as the day of the Risen Lord, celebrating God’s work of creation and “new creation”, Sunday is the day of joy in a very special way, indeed the day most suitable for learning how to rejoice and to rediscover the true nature and deep roots of joy.” Sunday is the day we learn how to rejoice and resdiscover the source of our joy, who is Jesus, who has conquered sin and death once and for all and has invited us to share in the spoils of this victory. Sunday, therefore, is a time for celebration, a day given by God to men and women for us to celebrate and rejoice in the greatest event of all time, which happened out of love for us.

Ultimately, the way we live Sunday is what we prophesy about the faith. Sunday is a gift of God to us so that we can anticipate heaven, and we should live Sunday the way we hope to live in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when all our needs will be left here in this valley of tears, and when we can spend eternity in the loving presence of God in heaven. Sunday is a day on which we can put into reality our belief in the communion of saints here on earth, so that we can come together with others and worship God here in this world, in preparation, we hope, for doing so eternally in heaven. It is also a day on which we can anticipate, with St. Therese, spending eternity doing good upon earth. If this is what we hope to do on that eternal eighth day, the eighth day that will know no evening, we can start here on earth, showering those who need it with roses and so many other acts of love.

The Holy Father says that “as a day of prayer, communion and joy, Sunday resounds throughout society, emanating vital energies and reasons for hope. Sunday is the proclamation that time, in which he who is the Risen Lord of history makes his home, is not the grave of our illusions but the cradle of an ever new future, an opportunity given to us to turn the fleeting moments of this life into seeds of eternity. Sunday is an invitation to look ahead; it is the day on which the Christian community cries out to Christ, “Marana tha: Come, Lord Jesus!” With this cry of hope and expectation, the Church is the companion and support of human hope. From Sunday to Sunday, enlightened by Christ, she goes forward towards the unending Sunday of the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Sunday is a gift ultimately given to us by God to renew us in faith, to replenish us in love, and to refresh us in hope, until that day when we can stand astride that heavenly altar, beholding the Lamb looking as if he has been slain, and hear him say, “Come, all you blessed of my Father! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world!”