For Christians, Jews and Muslims, work is sharing in God’s creative nature. As the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” reminds us, when human beings were first created, we were made to share in the work of God. “The sign of man’s familiarity with God is that God places him in the garden. There he lives ‘to till it and keep it.’ Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation” (n. 378).
So, created in God’s image, we are to both work, and rest. Rest was to be a time to enjoy what God and we ourselves had created — to be able to sit back and say, “It is good.”
Later, long after we had lost our place in the garden, the law of rest on the seventh day was “set in stone.” When Moses brought the Hebrew people the Ten Commandments, they were told, “Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may be done then …” (Ex 20:10).
The Jewish law of Sabbath rest was observed by Jesus and his followers, but the Lord gave it new meaning. When his enemies tried to condemn him for performing miracles on the Sabbath, such as the healing of the man with the withered hand in the 12th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells them that the Sabbath is a day to revel in the goodness of God (12:12). And again, in healing a woman crippled for 18 years, Jesus said the Sabbath was the perfect day to set people free to rejoice in God (Lk 13:1-17).
But Jesus also knew the value of rest. He told his disciples to “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). He himself slipped off to pray. And he promised rest to “all you who labor and are burdened” (Mt 11:28).
After the Resurrection, his first followers continued to keep the Sabbath rest, but they also honored “the Lord’s Day,” which followed the Sabbath. It was on Sunday that the Lord rose, so it was on this day that Christians gathered to commemorate this event and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
In his 1998 apostolic letter on Sunday observances, Pope John Paul II noted this.
“The Lord’s Day … is Easter which returns week by week, celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death, the fulfillment in him of the first creation and the dawn of ‘the new creation.” It is the day which recalls in grateful adoration the world’s first day and looks forward in active hope to ‘the last day,’ when Christ will come in glory and all things will be made new (cf. Rev 21:5)” (“Dies Domini,” 1).
As time passed, observing the Sabbath (Saturday) faded from the Christian practices, and the Lord’s Day became the day of rest. The 1983 Code of Canon Law explains the current rule on Sunday practice for Catholics:
“On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to assist at Mass. They are also to abstain from such work or business that would inhibit the worship to be given to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the due relaxation of mind and body” (n. 1247).
At times when the majority of western society was Christian, keeping the day of rest was largely universal, and most people found it easy to rest on Sunday. However, modern society makes this more difficult. Pope John Paul acknowledged this.
“The custom of the ‘weekend’ has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days. This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects … Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a ‘weekend,’ it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see ‘the heavens.’ Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so.” (“Dies Domini,” 4).
So how do we reclaim the Sunday rest? Of course, we first attend Mass and receive Communion. Then, we must, as the catechism says, follow God’s example: “If God ‘rested and was refreshed’ on the seventh day, humans too ought to ‘rest’ and should let others, especially the poor, ‘be refreshed’” (n. 2172).
It’s hard to keep holy our Sabbath in a society where people must work on Sundays, or holy days. Or where working all week only leaves the weekend to catch up on household chores and errands. However, the Sabbath (Sunday) rest doesn’t have to mean lying around in a hammock all day. It just means doing things to refresh ourselves, as well to refresh and heal others. This can mean a family outing, a visit to the sick or elderly, or even gardening.
As Fr. John Dietzen, a regular columnist in The Compass explained it, “The aim is to reflect in our homes and activities on that day above all the peace, joy contentment and love we have because of what Jesus has done for us.”
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Labor; “Dies Domini” at www.vatican.va; 1983 Code of Canon Law; Catholic News Service