September 1, 2021

Celebrate Sunday

Bishop Stowe ordination

We are most fully Church when we encounter the Lord together

By Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv.

A rabbi friend of mine once asked his children which was their favorite of the Jewish holidays. Thinking that they might not mention the high holy days because of the amount of time they had to spend in the synagogue, he was curious if it was the Passover with its special meal, the fried foods and dreidels of Chanukah or another holiday. He was thoroughly delighted when his young daughter said, “Shabbat (Sabbath) because we get to do it every week.”

For many of us, there was a time when Sunday was also like a weekly holiday. Of course, there were limitations on activities like shopping, because many believed in keeping the Christian Sabbath holy; but the absence of some activities allowed it to be a special day, reserved for worship, recreation and family.

With the ever-increasing worship of mammon in the world, work and business have become a 24/7 reality and there is no time to slow down. We do have plenty of legitimate excuses for “necessary” work on the Sabbath; but perhaps we need to admit what we have lost in exchange for the convenience of Sunday shopping, team sports, and other activities. Beyond that, we seem to easily overlook the fact that keeping the Sabbath holy is a divine commandment; it doesn’t even fall into the category of “man-made rules” of the Church that some suggest make them more easily ignored.

Like so many other aspects of our lives, the observance of Sunday has undergone further transformation in the course of the pandemic. This was especially true when we were not only dispensed from the Sunday obligation of attending Mass, but even prohibited from doing so in person during the worst weeks of COVID-19’s spread.

Now that churches are pretty much fully open and lesser restrictions are in place (although caution, care and plenty of sanitizer are still highly recommended), it won’t be long until we see the Sunday obligation reinstated as the normal practice for Catholics. As disciples of Jesus, our participation in the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, our weekly “Little Easter,” should not have to be a matter of obligation.

We should echo the many Psalms of the Old Testament that characterize the pilgrimage to the temple and the opportunity for worship as a cause for joy. Even the word used for the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord and its celebration, “Eucharist,” literally means “thanksgiving.” We all know that forced or demanded gratitude is a kind of contradiction in terms, but we also know that sometimes we need rules to remind us of what is good for us — even if we shouldn’t have to.

In 1998, St. John Paul II wrote a beautiful encyclical called Dies Domini, that is, “the day of the Lord.” It was written then to call the Church to a renewed appreciation of the weekly holiday that we inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers and transformed to include the celebration of the Resurrection. Each Sunday for us should remind us of the transformation of history that occurred with the death and resurrection of Jesus. For the early Christians, Sunday was transformed from a work day into the day that marked the beginning of the new creation — taking into itself both the importance of worshipping on the Lord’s Day and keeping the Sabbath rest in order to enjoy the fruits of creation as the Creator himself did in the Book of Genesis.

St. John Paul II taught that Sunday is the Day of the Lord and also the Day of the Church, because we are most fully the Church when we are gathered in the eucharistic assembly. The eucharistic celebration is the optimal encounter with the Risen Lord, who commissions us to be his living presence in the world.

Sunday is likewise the day of celebrating the goodness of creation with joy, rest and solidarity with the whole human family. In this way, we observe the teaching of Jesus that the Sabbath is meant for the good of humanity, not to be a burden and occasion for sin, but an opportunity for celebration and the enjoyment of all that God has given us.

Ultimately, St. John Paul taught, Sunday is the Day of Days, because it anticipates the Day of Eternity when we are all gathered around God’s throne in the fullness of God’s reign. We anticipate this joy in our Sunday celebration, just as the resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Sunday inaugurate this kingdom in our midst.

In those early weeks of the pandemic, I heard from many people how nice it was to be with family together on Sunday, a practice that for too many had been lost. Even as we were missing the gathering and the physical participation in the Eucharist, many savored the opportunity to worship in the home as a family and welcome the Word of God into their houses.

Maybe this is a great opportunity to collectively examine our consciences about how well we observe the Lord’s Day? Do we make Sunday special? Is it a time for family, for rest, for fun, for enjoyment and for worship? Do we understand how these things are all interrelated?

“Let us go rejoicing to the house of God!”