Thought for the week - 31 October
A few years ago, this ‘Grumpy Old Man’ wrote a tongue in cheek article about the obligation for Christians to attend Sunday Mass. I was taken to task then, and one correspondent said
‘Going to church should always be a pleasure, After all its part of our leisure.’
As Advent approaches, and as we celebrate the great Feast of All Saints and the commemoration of All Souls, we are reminded of our duty and our task over and above our ‘leisure.’ Also, on Advent Sunday, the obligation to attend mass, quite rightly lifted during the lockdowns of the pandemic, is reinstated. We need to prepare ourselves for that.
Going to church should always be a pleasure. Is it? And more importantly, does that matter? It’s part of our leisure. Is it? This does give the impression that we only go if we have the leisure, and we enjoy the experience. In other words, it’s like going to the cinema.
While worshiping God can of course be a pleasure, and done well it changes us for the better, the primary aim of our worship is not pleasure or self-improvement. In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the liturgy used by many of the Eastern Rite Catholic churches, the priest at one point chants, “For to You is due all glory, honour, and worship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages.”
While God doesn’t need our worship to be complete, our worship is still a duty—something that we owe to God. But it is a duty that we can perform cheerfully, knowing that, in doing so, we are participating briefly in the life of heaven.
In the Third Commandment, God tells us to “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.” For the Jews, the Sabbath was Saturday; Christians, however, transferred the Sabbath to Sunday, the day of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The Church tells us that we have an obligation to fulfil the Third Commandment by refraining from unnecessary work on Sunday and by participating in the Mass, our chief form of worship as Christians.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have understood that being a Christian isn’t a private matter. We are called to be Christians together; while we can and should engage in the private worship of God throughout the week, our primary form of worship is public and communal, which is why Sunday Mass is so important.
Why do Christians need to worship? God does not need our worship; He is complete in Himself, even without receiving the worship of His creatures.
We, however, aren’t complete. In our fallen state, we have separated ourselves from God. Worship draws us closer to Him. When we worship Him, we imitate the angels and saints who surround His throne in heaven. We are drawn out of this life and catch a glimpse of the next. The Mass and the other liturgies of the Church are not mere human ceremonies or social hours; they are a participation in heaven here on earth.
We live in a time when words like duty and obligation are out of fashion. Yet the Christian life necessarily involves duty, even thankless duty. Jesus himself tells us "when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done." (Lk 17:10, NRSV).
St. Paul tells the Corinthians not to give him credit for his missionary service, because that's what he is obliged to do: "Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16). He's just doing what God told him to do, so he looks for thanks from neither God nor men.
We all have duties and obligations. Some come from family life—duties toward spouse, or children, or parents. Others arise from baptism, which is a source not only of rights but of responsibilities as well. Still other duties come from commitments we have made as priests or consecrated persons.
It's a mistake to think that missing Mass is simply breaking a Church rule. We know that keeping the Sabbath day holy is one of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism says, "the celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart"—a command "to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship." Jews, Moslems, and Christians all agree on the need to offer weekly praise to God, even if we do so on different days.
For us, though, Sunday Mass is more than just our weekly worship. The Eucharist "is at the heart of the Church's life" and Sunday is the day on which the mystery of Christ's Resurrection has been celebrated from the earliest times.
For the Christian, Sunday is "the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord's Day" In his beautiful letter "On Keeping the Lord's Day Holy" [Dies Domini, 1998], Pope John Paul calls Sunday "the weekly Easter," "the day of the new creation," "an image of eternity"—I hope he wasn't talking about long homilies!—"the day of Christ-light," "the day of faith," summing up by calling it simply "an indispensable day."
Despite those rich expressions of the wonder and power of Sunday, the late Pope was realistic, and he writes with insight about the obstacles that make it difficult to participate in the Sunday celebration.
He further said:
"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 ... This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people's development and to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. …
"Unfortunately," the Pope continues "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."
It’s easy to say he didn't understand the situation families face when soccer games, recitals, ski trips, and meetings all take place on Sunday.
But understanding the situation doesn't mean surrendering to it. The Pope's letter continues with these powerful words:
"The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord's Day holy, and the 'weekend', understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation. This will require a genuine spiritual maturity, which will enable Christians to 'be what they are'… In this way, they will be led to a deeper understanding of Sunday, with the result that, even in difficult situations, they will be able to live it in complete docility to the Holy Spirit."
That duty to God is often know by a Latin title ‘Opus Dei,’ literally, Work of God. The weekend is for pleasure and part of our leisure. Our Sunday worship is of a much higher level than that. It is part of our duty to God.
That Opus Dei is of course not limited to Sundays. As the well-known hymn puts it ‘Seven whole days not one in seven I will praise thee.’ We Baptised Christians have a duty worship God not just once a week, but always and everywhere. We are called upon to pray regularly each day. In parishes like our own, we have a wonderful opportunity to do just this. We have a mass almost every day. Numbers at the weekday masses are falling and falling. Why is this? Is it because people are genuinely too busy? Perhaps they are. Perhaps there are other genuine reasons. But Jesus reminds us as he reminded his disciples, ‘Where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.’ There may well be genuine occasions when we cannot attend Mass on Sundays. But why not, in that case, ‘make up for it’ during the week?
Perhaps we all need to examine our lives to see where our priorities lie. If we genuinely see our Sunday Mass attendance as simply pleasure and part of our leisure, then we are surely not taking our Christian duty very seriously. It also means that we are risking abandoning our discipleship as soon as our worship becomes less pleasurable and leisurely. This hardly rings true to the call of a Jesus who not only said ‘Follow me all who are weary and heavy laden’ but also ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’