The 10 Commandments – The 3rd: “Remember the Sabbath, Keep it Holy”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


One need not be a misanthrope to conclude that the demand – and promise – of the Third Commandment has been drowned out by the noise and busy-ness of our 21st Century world. For that reason its call is all the more urgent to the modern Christian. The seventh day’s rest God commands is a reminder of the rest God Himself enjoyed in the Book of Genesis. This was not a vacation from being God, which would be impossible, but a retreat from the labor of the previous six days, in which He brought all things into existence. “…in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.”


A day to rest, and a memorial day to reflect on God’s merciful intervention in our lives. Above all, the sabbath is a day to imitate God.

If God “rested and was refreshed” on the seventh day, man too ought to “rest” and should let others, especially the poor, “be refreshed.” The sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money. (CCC, #2172)


These words are based in God’s command to Moses, but the editors of our Catechism want us to be very clear: the sabbath rest is God’s message for us today. To embrace and rejoice in the sabbath is neither frivolity nor laziness; it is an acknowledgment of our worth as God’s creatures. It is also an opportunity for us, as Christians, to say “no” to a society that often places unreasonable labor demands on its citizens and encourages us to see nothing more than the cash value of the goods that surround us.


Those who have reached a certain age will recall an older Catechism, which reminded the faithful of their duty to refrain from “unnecessary servile labor” on the sabbath. The words “unnecessary” and “servile” are important to consider here, and they call to mind the criticism Jesus received when his enemies accused Him of violating the sabbath prescriptions by healing several individuals who were ill on that day.

He replied, “The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath,” (Mk. 2:28) but what is more to the point, our Catechism remarks, “With compassion Christ declares the sabbath for doing good rather than harm, for saving life rather than killing.” (CCC, #2172) Likewise, “Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of [sabbath] rest.” (CCC, #2185) St. Augustine observed, “The charity of truth seeks holy leisure; the necessity of charity accepts just work.” God’s command to observe the sabbath is serious; it does not excuse us from extending God’s mercy to our loved ones or others in need.


At some point we may wonder how – and why – God’s People in the Old Testament observed their sabbath on the seventh day, while Christians embrace Sunday, the first day of the week, as our sabbath. The simple answer, of course, is our choosing to celebrate Sunday as the day of Christ’s Resurrection.

St. Justin (AD 100 – 165), one of the Church’s early writers, saw great significance in Jesus’ rising on the first day, “…the day of the sun when God separated matter from darkness [and] made the world….” We immediately see the symbolic, literary value of St. Justin’s words: Jesus, the Light of the World, rose from the dead on the same day God created light. What better day to rejoice in God’s saving love? Thus, our Catechism observes

Jesus rose from the dead “on the first day of the week.” Because it is the “first day,” the day of Christ’s Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the “eighth day” following the sabbath, it symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day…. (CCC, #2174)

The Catechism text continues, telling us Jesus fulfilled the many promises God made His people through the prophets; so, too, Sunday fulfills the “spiritual truth” of the sabbath of the Old Law, and the rest we enjoy during our earthly sabbaths points to the eternal rest we look forward to sharing with God in His kingdom.


Worship is a traditional part of our sabbath celebrations, and St. Thomas Aquinas makes an interesting connection among the first three of the Ten Commandments. The first commandment, which forbids us to worship false gods, “…remove[s] the obstacles to true religion. Now the chief obstacle to religion is for man to adhere to a false god…Therefore in the first precept of the Law the worship of false gods is excluded.” The second leads us to worship because, “In one who is being instructed in virtue it is necessary to remove obstacles… before establishing him in true religion. Now a thing is opposed to true religion in two ways…when…that which belongs to religion is given to others than to whom it is due… [and] when God is condemned….” (ST, II-II, 122.2, 3)


None will be surprised to learn the Eucharist is the prayer prescribed for our liturgical observance of the sabbath. “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life.” (CCC,#2177) The Church’s Code of Canon Law observes, “Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.” (CIC, 1264.1)

Sunday worship is time-hallowed, and extends back to the Church’s earliest days. The notion of a parish is relatively recent, but community worship is as old as the Church itself. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “You cannot pray at home as at church, where there is a great multitude, where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart.” The Catechism stresses the importance of the parish when it teaches,

It is the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life; It gathers them together in the celebration; it teaches Christ’s saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love. (CCC, #2179)


The Catechism underscores the gravity of our obligatory duty to participate in Sunday worship when it states, “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason… Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” (CCC, #2181)

Church law also assigns an obligation to attending Mass on Christmas, The Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, Epiphany, the Ascension of the Lord, Corpus Christi, and the feasts of St. Joseph, Peter and Paul, and All Saints. However, the text remarks, “The conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.”


Many Catholics have asked why important feast days, like the Lord’s Ascension, have been moved to Sunday, and the reason is to allow the faithful more easily to take part in the liturgy proper to the feast day. Modern life, at least in the United States, seldom recognizes the importance of religious feast days, so many individuals have difficulty attending Mass on holy days – and absolutely cannot observe the sabbath rest such days deserve. By transferring some feast days to Sunday, the Church allows the faithful at least the opportunity to celebrate the liturgical feast.


Even in places where no priest is available to celebrate Mass, the faithful are encouraged to gather and reflect on the day’s Scripture readings. Our Baptism is a baptism into Christ’s Body, and we must never forget our Savior’s admonition, “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt. 18:20) This is nowhere more evident than when we gather for our sabbath worship.


But how shall we spend the rest of our Sunday? The Catechism numbers several worthwhile enterprises.

Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life. (CCC, #2186)

The first on the list of these activities might include tasks we would not – by any standard – consider “leisure” undertakings. They may be physically, and emotionally, draining. But, like Jesus’ outreach to those in need, these efforts are signs of God’s mercy at work in our world. Our theology teaches us mercy is sorrow for another’s misfortune, coupled with a practical will to relieve it. Charitable causes are no excuse to avoid the spiritual growth the sabbath invites us to cultivate, but when the demands of mercy steal into our meditation, we may console ourselves with Jesus’ reminder, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mk. 2:28)


Christians have every right to enjoy sport and other recreational activities on Sunday, but we must recall we enjoy them at the expense of others’ sabbaths. “…public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation toward their employees.” (CCC, #2187) Likewise, “Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day.” (CCC, #2195)


The gospel tells us nothing of Mary’s education, although tradition claims she spent her childhood in the Temple. Whatever the case, her Magnificat is the expression of someone very familiar with Old Testament imagery, and Old Testament theology. Mary’s is the voice expressing in the New Testament the very best the Old Testament has to say. And whether she learned her lessons in the Temple or at the knees of her parents, Anne and Joachim, the beauty with which her soul magnifies the Lord bespeaks the tradition of “…the Lord’s Day [which] helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious lives.” (CCC, #2184)


One of Ronald Knox’s books, A Retreat for Lay People, begins and ends with a reflection on Mary, and in each he asks us to consider her calm, her quiet, and her serenity. Individuals who are quiet and calm can often be taken for depressed, lazy or lethargic, but Knox points out there’s another side to this, and that’s “…the knack of putting first thing first.” After the Annunciation, he remarks, she pays her visit to Elizabeth “in haste,” but not “in a hurry.”

Our dictionary defines “haste” as speed, but adds it is speed combined with a certain purpose or dispatch, which echoes Knox’s observation, “Calm people don’t need to be in a hurry, because they hasten at the right moment, about the right things.” The 19th Century Dominican Henri Lacordaire observed, “After the Word, Silence is the most powerful force in the world. The sabbath is an invitation to cultivate that powerful force in our lives, that we may hasten at the proper time, and about the right things. When the gospel tells us, ‘and his mother kept all these things in her heart'” we may be certain she cultivated the sabbath silence that allowed her to reflect upon them.

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