It used to be that every time I got the two-week reminder for my dental cleaning appointment, I would start flossing my teeth again. It wasn’t that I had forgotten to floss, but that I wanted to avoid the floss-shaming from the hygienist. I thought that floss was overkill seeing as my high-powered electric toothbrush already removed the food particles and plaque from between my teeth. Then during one appointment the hygienist explained that one of the main purposes was to keep your gums healthy. No one had ever told me why I needed to floss and just assumed I knew why (and didn’t realize I was too proud to ask). Understanding lifted the “obligation” and desire followed. I stopped doing it merely to keep from getting in trouble with the dentist and started doing it because it was what healthy people do. For many Catholics, Mass is like flossing. They may be aware of the obligation to go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, but because they do not understand why this is so important and the desire is lost.
In an age of exalted personal freedom, obligation is a dirty word—“I shouldn’t have to do anything, especially during my free time on the weekends.” Not to mention, God doesn’t want people who are forced to go to Church but people who free love Him. God doesn’t want a bunch of rule-followers but men and women who love Him. With this as the prevailing mindset, the Sunday obligation conjures up images of the “pre-Vatican II” Church that was overly focused on rules. Obligations reek of mechanical action and are devoid of love.
Why We Need Laws and Obligations
The problem with this line of reasoning though is that we easily forget why God imposes rules and obligations upon us in the first place. The giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses while the Israelites were reveling at the foot of Sinai was not arbitrary. They were given precisely at that moment because the people are pining for their days in Egypt and are beginning to act just like what they were before—slaves. God gives them the Ten Commandments to show them what they must do to protect their true freedom. Like the obligation to floss, the obligations imposed by the Decalogue are things that keep the human person healthy and from falling into slavery to sin.
At the bottom of the first tablet of the Law is the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath, the same Sabbath that Christ tells us was made for man (Mk 2:27). In other words, keeping the Sabbath is what a free and healthy person does. By setting aside one day a week to worship God, it keeps us from worshipping the false gods that surround us and continually threaten our freedom. As the Catechism says, “the Sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (CCC 2172).
In truth, God does not need our worship, instead it is us that needs to worship Him. He has made us to appreciate His infinite goodness and we are only truly fulfilled when we do that. Worship is the way we do that. But not any worship will do—this is the lesson of the Golden Calf. There are certain forms of worship that show forth His goodness truly and certain forms which don’t. Worship is not so much us going up to God, but Him coming to us, showing us how He should be worshipped.
Why the Mass is Different
The Mass is the divinely revealed form of worship. God does care how we worship Him or else He would not have gone to such incredible lengths to give it to us. It is the Mass that Our Lord so eagerly desired to give to the Apostles (Lk 22:15) and that received His stamp of approval with His last word from the Cross. It is the most perfect prayer to God, because it is God Himself Who has written it with His blood.
The Law gives us guidance on how to act just as the Mass gives us guidance on how to offer right worship. But the Sunday Obligation is also different than the giving of the Law because it actually empowers us to love God and move beyond obligation. Our participation in Mass enables us to take ownership of the greatest act of love for God that mankind has ever offered and make it our own. Not just by watching but by truly participating; a participation that is consummated in Holy Communion. The love for the Father that motivated Christ to perform that self-sacrificial act now becomes mine and yours and the stone tablets of our hearts become His flesh and blood. In short, the Mass is obligatory because there is no more efficacious way to grow in love of God—“He who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood has no life in him” (John 6:53). We could never come to this conclusion on our own and it is the Church as Mother that commands what is for our own good. Without this act of obligation we will never come to love God more than we love ourselves. Obligation gives way to desire through the power of the Cross given to us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Like my flossing revelation, understanding lifts the obligation of the Mass and allows desire to grow to full bloom. Our Lord “earnestly desired to eat this Pascha” (Lk 22:47) with each and every one of us. Go and allow your desire to meet His!