Over the last couple of months I’ve been examining the Ten Commandments to see if they are really God’s guide to happiness. This month I’ve been looking at the third Commandment – remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. So what’s the Sabbath day and how do we keep it holy?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us more detail.
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, 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.”
The Jewish Sabbath is a Saturday but the early Church made our day of rest a Sunday to mark the day of Christ’s resurrection. Now I would imagine that having a day when you don’t have to go to work would make most of us happy but why the ban on work and just how practical is that?
In Scotland there are many Christians who believe that no work of any kind should be done on a Sunday, The day should be completely reserved for worshipping God. Even household chores must be completed on the Saturday night and Sunday will see no cooking or cleaning. A day spent in close communion with God should make us happy.
A few years ago some island communities were split over the issue of the ferries sailing on a Sunday. For Catholics and many other denominations Sunday does not mean a complete shutdown of normal life. According to my old ‘penny catechism’ the Church requires that we assist at a public Mass and refrain from servile work on a Sunday. I suppose the difference is about what we mean by holy.
Servile work would be going to work as usual, working for pay. Working in the home, preparing meals, tidying up etc. would not be classed as servile work. Whatever we do for our family, making meals, cleaning the kitchen etc. is part of marriage and because matrimony is a sacrament we actually receive grace for doing these things. I think that means these tasks are making the Sabbath holy.
In our society today we are often expected to work on a Sunday as a normal part of the job. We expect the buses and trains to run on a Sunday. Where would we be if the emergency services didn’t work on Sunday? Doctors and nurses in hospitals must work on Sunday. Some people would not be able to get to Mass otherwise. Even in non-essential jobs Sunday working is seen as normal. The shops are open on Sunday. How many of us leave Mass and go straight to the supermarket or meet friends in a coffee shop to catch up? These things require people to work on Sunday.
It is also permissible to indulge in entertainment like going to a football match (though some of the matches I’ve seen require a great stretch of the imagination to describe them as entertainment) or the cinema or some other entertainment. These things promote bonding among friends and family. But what about the workers; those who have to work so that we can be entertained also have need of family time. They may get time off during the week but that might not allow for family activity.
I noticed that Poland has decided that Sunday shopping should be phased out to allow the workers to have their day of rest as well as everyone else. This may not be too popular with the shoppers but I for one would be delighted to have one day in the week when I can’t be taken shopping.
So what exactly do we mean by holy? This is a question that has got me into arguments in the past. Some would cling to an image of someone kneeling in prayer before a crucifix or a statue of a saint. Hands joined in prayer are a famous image on prayer cards. There is no doubt that being in contemplation of God or in deep prayer would be described as being holy. However I don’t think that is the only context that could be described as holy.
Saint Thomas described holiness as the virtue by which we make all our acts subservient to God. It would follow then that whenever we act in ways that follow Jesus’ example we are being holy. How, then, could we keep the Sabbath holy? If we join with our fellow Catholics in the celebration of the Eucharist we are joining with them in communion with Christ. Jesus spent time withal sorts of people, his disciples, friends and many people he did not know. He shared meals with them and engaged in conversation.
I would consider from his example that we could spend the Sabbath with family and friends, sharing a meal, conversation and entertainment (there is no mention of Jesus going to the football but we can disregard that) and act in a way that is holy. When we are dealing with those we don’t know we should treat them with respect and friendliness.
You might argue that we should always behave in that way and you would be right. Why would we expect to spend Sunday behaving in one way and the rest of the week behaving differently? Really we should try to keep every day holy. We don’t need to walk around with a beatific smile on our face every day but I suspect Jesus didn’t do that either.
Now the question is simply one of whether this approach to holiness would make us happy. Now it seems to me that breaking up the working week so that life is not just one long unbroken trail of working days must be good for the psyche. Whether your work is hard physical labour or some more cerebral occupation you need to stop and rest regularly.
Whatever your station in life, Prime Minister or bin man, it is good to stop and consider the relationship you have with God. You were made by the God who created the universe and all its wonders. In your Sunday Mass you receive the Saviour who died to save you personally. He knows your name and listens to your prayers. God has no favourites; you are just as important to Him as the Bishop or the Pope. In that Mass we are all joined together through Christ. How could that fail to make us happy?
In making our Sabbath day a holy day we can transcend the daily niggles and hurts that can make us unhappy. We stop and remind ourselves that we are passing through all this on a journey to our eternal home. We will leave behind all the worries, all the trivial issues that bother us. We can start a new week ready to face whatever confronts us.
It’s never material things that make us happy. Your new sports car will only make you feel good until you start to hear strange noises or warning lights start blinking on the dashboard. Our happiness depends on our relationships. We need to build good relationships with our friends, family and the people we come into contact with. Our relationship with God is the most important and brings true happiness.
Keeping our Sabbath day holy builds these relationships. So to be truly happy don’t treat the Sabbath as just another day; it’s the most important day of the week.