If Aristotle were to return to the earth in 2015 and see all that has been accomplished he would assume that he would find a society that had a great deal of leisure in their lives. With all the technological advances in labor saving devices, he would have expected that this allowed man a greater use of his time in free activity. Aristotle, like most of the ancient world, thought that we work in order to be at leisure not the other way around like we do today. Much to his surprise he would find a society that no longer knew the meaning of leisure and was stressed out like never before. We are so infected with consumerism that we believe that all life’s needs and their satisfaction come from purchasable items. It has enslaved most of us and it seems that we are trapped in a vicious circle. The Church however places before us the perennial antidote to this type of slavery—the remembering of the Sabbath as a “day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (CCC 2172).
In order to live fully the gift of the Sabbath, it is necessary first to understand what it is and why it is given to us. The Sabbath has its roots “in the beginning.” God “rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it He rested from all the work he had done in creation” (Gn 2:2-3). God’s “resting” is an anthropomorphism charged with a wealth of meaning. As John Paul II says in his Apostolic Exhortation Dies Domini, “it would be banal to interpret God’s rest as a kind of inactivity.” Instead it is meant to convey the fullness of what God had accomplished. God “pauses” to look upon the marvel of what He has created and through the anthropomorphism the Holy Spirit invites us to do the same within the regular cycle of time. It is not meant to be a mere interruption of work however. As St. Thomas Aquinas often says, “last in the order of execution, first in the order of intention.” God’s rest is the last thing He does in the Creation account because it is meant to serve as a sign of what He intends to accomplish. He invites man to participate because it is sign of man’s final destination of an eternal rest in God’s presence—“the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Only by actively participating in the Sabbath can we “experience a tremor of the Creator’s joy” by beholding what He made is “very good” (Dies Domini, 17).
With the Fall of mankind the Sabbath becomes more important for man because it signifies the vital link between creation and salvation. This is seen most clearly when we read the two accounts of the Decalogue. In Exodus 20, the emphasis is placed on not doing any work in imitation of God. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the emphasis is on remembering the salvation God gave them when He brought them out of Egypt. It is this connection between creation and salvation that causes so much tension between Jesus and the Pharisees about His healings on the Sabbath. It is not that Jesus is some rebellious rule-breaker, but that He is trying to reveal the true meaning of the Sabbath by restoring its liberating character. You should notice how in each of the Sabbath day healings, He heals some illness that would have been a juridical impediment to someone participating in the worship of the Jews (c.f. Mt 12:9-14).
The early Church had the habit of celebrating both the Lord’s Day (Sunday) and the Sabbath (Saturday). This link between creation and salvation is what made the early Christians believe they had the authority to transfer the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day. It was Sunday that fulfilled the Sabbath. They came to view Sunday as the “8th Day.” It was the day of the Resurrection and therefore the definitive saving action of God. It was also the 1st day of the week and thus the day of Creation and Re-Creation.
With a proper understanding of the Sabbath restored, the question naturally arises as to how we are best to celebrate it. As John Paul II reminded us, “sharing in the Eucharist is the heart of Sunday but the duty to keep Sunday holy cannot be reduced to this.” It is lived well “if it is marked from beginning to end by grateful and active remembrance of God’s saving work.” It should be seen as not so much “free time” but “freedom time.”
What are some concrete things we can do to mark this holy day? It should be day in which we stop and thank God for all the gifts He has given us. The deeper our sense of gratitude (always for very specific things) the deeper our participation in the Sabbath. Also, allowing ourselves to be free from consumerist driven leisure activities and enjoy the natural world is certainly a great thing to do. The former Pontiff said that the Sabbath should also include a “relaxed gathering of parents and children that can be marked by prayer and catechesis.” This catechesis is not simply dropping the kids at the Parish but it should be catechesis that includes the whole family. Sunday is an opportunity to devote to works of mercy, charity and apostolate. If the purpose of Sunday is to capture the joy of the Lord, then it is necessary to keep the commandment of love for our neighbor (c.f. John 15:11-12).
What about activities that cause other people to work like going to a restaurant? Personally I would suggest keeping these at a minimum, but you might consider being more generous in your tipping to help those who have to work. In a society that has lost the habit of the Sabbath rest there are many people who have to work. By generously tipping them you may help them get out of this necessity. You might also consider frequenting those places that are closed on Sundays on other days of the week as well. What I would suggest as well is to not do any unnecessary shopping. If large chain stores begin to see that it is not as profitable to remain open on Sunday they will either close or at least force less people to work. Again it is a matter of personal conscience but I would say the day should be treated differently than other days and should be marked by gratitude, especially for the people God has given you.