People always seem surprised when I tell them that I have seldom missed Mass. In fact, the only time I missed Mass in recent memory occurred during a snowstorm. Some people I have encountered view church as optional. They tend to believe that you can call upon the Lord anywhere. The New Testament has certain scriptures that seem to abolish the Sabbath requirement. Yet The Catholic Church makes observing The Lord’s Day a requirement. The Church makes it a mortal sin to miss church without a grave reason. Why does The Church care so much about our presence in a building? After all, Jesus spoke against the Sabbath in Luke 14:1-6. Like all biblical interpretations, context is important. The Catholic Church’s teachings reconcile the Old Testament scripture with the words in The New Testament.
The first reference to a mandatory day of rest occurs in Genesis. Here, God is creating the universe. Then, we read Genesis 2:3
God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation. Genesis 2:3 (NABre).
We as the readers learn key things about the Sabbath. God made it a day of rest. We believe God is all powerful. He did not need the rest. Rather God is choosing to rest. This choice gives an example to humanity. God knows we need the rest. We learn that the 7th day is blessed. Thus when we set aside the 7th day, God blesses us. Last, this verse tells us that God made the 7th day holy. Thus, we should keep our mind on holy things. Thus The Church has decided to make the 7th day a time of corporate worship. When we get to the New Testament this will be further expanded upon. From Genesis, we learn that the Sabbath is a concept that directly comes from God and not man-made laws.
The next mention of the Sabbath occurs in the book of Exodus. In this book, God rescues the Israelites from spiritual and physical slavery in Egypt. Once the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, God gives them a code of laws. God designed these laws to help set the Israelites apart from other pagan nations. When dictating these laws, God said,
Remember the sabbath day—keep it holy. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God. You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates. For in six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day, he rested. Exodus 20:8-11(NABre).
So The Old Testament, The Book of Exodus marks the beginning of the Sabbath being encoded into the law. The Book of Leviticus, The Book of Numbers, and The Book of Deuteronomy all mention the Sabbath. In those books, the Sabbath is no longer a mere memorial for the creation of the world. Rather, The Sabbath commemorates God freeing the Israelites from Exodus. The Sabbath has become a form of corporate worship.
Call Upon the Lord
Yet some people point to verses like Psalm 145:18 as proof that one is not obligated to keep the Sabbath. Usually, people who make this argument focus on the first part of the verse, but ignore the second. Psalm 145: 18 says
the Lord is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth
The interpretation depends on how one defines calling upon the Lord in truth. In my Bible, there are two scriptures cited after this passage: Deu 4:4-10, and Isa 55:6. Deuteronomy says,
See, I am teaching you the statutes and ordinances as the Lord, my God, has commanded me, that you may observe them in the land you are entering to possess. Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the sight of the peoples, who will hear of all these statutes and say, “This great nation is truly a wise and discerning people.” For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?
Thus to have the privilege of calling upon the Lord, the Israelites must abide by the laws and statues. Calling upon the Lord is not merely making a request, it is submitting to the will of God. His will in the Old Covenant was to set aside a day to rest and honor Him.
So In the Old Testament, God instituted the Sabbath in order to provide us with a day of rest. He codified it as part of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11. The Books of Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus provide information regarding the Sabbath practice. Obeying the Sabbath is necessary in order to call upon the Lord in truth.
Yet we as Christians are not bound by only the Old Testament. We also follow the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ. A thorough examination of the scriptures shows that Christ honored the Sabbath. Yet he also challenged the authority at the time. He presented himself as a living sacrifice. He replaced the temple sacrificial system. Yet Jesus did not abolish the Old Testament law, but rather fulfilled it.
Jesus in the Gospel
We know that Jesus did not abolish the Old Testament law based on Matthew 19:16-17.
”If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”(NABre).
Jesus told the rich young man to keep the commandments. Hence, we as Christians are also obligated to keep the moral law. This moral law includes a prescription to keep the Sabbath holy and to rest. If that is the case, did Jesus do or say anything to undermine this commandment.
On a Sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. In front of him, there was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus spoke to the scholars of the law and Pharisees in reply, asking, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath or not?” But they kept silent; so he took the man and, after he had healed him, dismissed him. Then he said to them, “Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?” But they were unable to answer his question Luke 14:1-6 (NABre).
Here Jesus deliberately heals on the Sabbath. This at first glance seems to undermine the authority of the Sabbath. The reality is that Jesus is not saying to not rest or worship God. Rather, the Israelites needed to be reminded about mercy. The Pharisees had interpreted a law to allow the untying of bound animals on the Sabbath. Jesus is extending that compassion towards humans, who are bound by affliction.
Jesus also spoke about the Sabbath in Matthew 12:5-8
Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath
In Matthew 12, the Pharisees rebuke the disciples for picking the heads of grain on the Sabbath. In verse 5, Jesus mentions that the requirements of the temple outweighs the requirements of the Sabbath. If that is the case then Jesus’ presence outweighs the Sabbath as well since he is the son of God.
Jesus establishes a new covenant during the Last Supper. He gives us his flesh to eat in the form of bread and wine. This meal takes the place of the Passover meal. The Sabbath celebrated by the Jews commemorates God rescuing them from Egypt. The early Christian Church established The Lord’s day to celebrate The New Covenant.
Writings of the Early Church
St. Paul writes about the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16-17.
Let no one, then, pass judgment on you in matters of food and drink or with regard to a festival or new moon or sabbath. These are shadows of things to come; the reality belongs to Christ.
Here St. Paul says that the Jewish traditions were shadows of things to come. In other words, the Jewish traditions point to Christ. Christians do not need to celebrate the Sabbath but celebrate Christ. Yet the Sabbath rest is still a moral requirement. In Hebrews 4, the Bible says, “Therefore, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God. And whoever enters into God’s rest, rests from his own works as God did from his. Therefore, let us strive to enter into that rest, so that no one may fall after the same example of disobedience.”
The example of disobedience refers to the Israelites. They were given the promise land as a share of God’s rest but failed to honor the Sabbath.
In Hebrews 10:19-26, the Bible describes how Christ has replaced the Jewish temple worship.
Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and since we have “a great priest over the house of God,” let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy. We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near. Hebrews 10:19-26
This passage opens by explaining that we can enter the Holy of Holies. Jesus Christ made a way through his flesh. The term flesh represents His sacrificial death on the cross and His flesh given to us in the Eucharist. The terms sprinkled clean and bodies wash with pure water refers to Baptism. Finally, the author of Hebrews states that we should not stay away from our assembly. The assembly refers to Christian house churches. These assemblies are described in the Book of Acts.
Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart Acts 2:46 (NABre)
Since there were not physical buildings yet, the early Church met in houses. The term break bread refers to the Eucharist. The Bible even tells us what day of the week these celebrations took place
On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread, Paul spoke to them because he was going to leave on the next day, and he kept on speaking until midnight Acts 20:7 (NABre)
The early Christians broke bread on the first day of the week, which would be Sunday. Hence Sunday is now the new day of rest.
The Sabbath foreshadowed the celebration of The Last Supper. The former was a memorial to the Passover meal. It helped the Israelites remember how God rescued them from Egypt. Similarly, The Lord’s day memorializes Christ’s death on the cross. We break bread with one another as Christ commanded us to do. We are still bound by the moral command of the Old Covenant. This entails, “taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people.” (CCC 2176). Therefore I ask you, what is more, important than honoring God through the breaking of the bread? If nothing is then why are you not observing the Lord’s day?