Chapter 3 – Loving God

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The First Commandment:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them. (Ex 20:2–5)
It is written: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” (Mt 4:10)

Do you love God?  Certainly you do!  But this is not just a black and white question.  It’s not as if the answer is either yes or no and that’s it.  Love of God must be lived on many levels and in many ways and must continually grow deeper.  Ultimately, love of God calls us to be a total gift of ourselves to God, making Him the center of our lives.

The First Commandment calls us to know God, love Him and worship Him above all else.  The “bottom line” of this Commandment is that we should not worship false gods, but the “upper limit” is to offer the worship and love we owe God because of who He is, and to do this in an unconditional and unlimited way.  Let’s begin by looking at the bottom line and upper limit in more detail.

Our High Calling of Love

Morality is often seen only in a negative way.  We see what we should not do.  But it’s important that we move beyond seeing morality in only a negative way by looking to what morality is in a positive light.  Serving God and loving Him above all things means there are many glorious and positive things we are called to.  Here are a few of the high callings we receive from this Commandment.

Adoration:  To adore God is one of our highest callings.  Surprisingly, it means we first recognize our nothingness before God.  Yes, that’s right, nothingness!  This is the heart and soul of humility.  We are weak, and, without God, we are nothing.  Our pride can make this hard to admit.  But when we can recognize this, adoration then enables us to offer all glory to God rather than ourselves.  It enables us to bow down before Him in love and worship as we offer all the praise and glory to Him.  

Prayer:  We are called to “pray always.”  By making God the center of our lives, we choose also to make prayer the center of our lives.  Prayer is the active way in which we unite ourselves to God, making Him the center of our lives.

Sacrifice:  At the heart of love is sacrifice.  Sacrifice, on a secular and superficial level, does not make sense.  But on a spiritual level of faith, sacrifice is one of our greatest joys.  Sacrifice is at the heart of the love of Jesus in that He willingly gave His life on the Cross so as to atone for our sins.  Sacrifice, on our part, must not be seen in a negative light.  Rather, sacrifice must be seen as a wonderful opportunity to put God and His will first in our lives.  To live a sacrificial life is nothing other than to make the will of God more important than anything else in our lives.  The fruit of sacrifice is spiritual joy and peace, knowing that we are achieving the reason for our existence. 

Promises and Vows: There are various times when we are called to show honor and respect to God through solemn promises and vows.  These public commitments to God are made in the various Sacraments such as Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage and Holy Orders.  Making a promise or vow to God and then fulfilling it is a duty of every Christian. Some are called to unique expressions of vows in the religious life offering chastity, obedience and poverty to God in a solemn way.

Additionally, Christians may make personal promises to God as a way of entrusting themselves to Him and relying upon His grace to fulfill that promise.  Promises on this level are personal manifestations of faith.

Religious Liberty: This Commandment demands that society as a whole and, more specifically, those entrusted with civil authority respect the rights of each person to worship God and live out their faith.  We must be free to act in accord with our conscience and be free to live out God’s will in our lives.

The Bottom Line of This Commandment

In addition to calling us to a life of worship that makes God the center of our lives, this Commandment forbids certain acts also.  Below is a list of some of the things forbidden.

Superstition: This is the act of attributing some “magical” power to an action, ritual or item.  At times, Christians can even exaggerate certain good acts of piety attributing to those acts of devotion a power that should be attributed to God alone.  For example, novenas are wonderful forms of prayer which often have as their goal the seeking of spiritual graces.  However, there are times when novenas or other pious acts are presented in such a way that we are led to believe that if we say certain prayers in a certain way, we are guaranteed God will answer whatever we request.  In this case there can be a danger of turning a holy and pious act into a superstitious one.

Idolatry: Idolatry is a way of treating something other than God as a god.  Obviously acts of pagan worship or Satanism are examples of this.  However, the Catechism points out that we can also make a god out of “power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.” (#2113).

Divination and Magic: The Catechism points out that seeking spiritual power from a source other than God contradicts this Commandment in these and other ways: “recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices that falsely try to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums” (#2116) are all violations of this Commandment.

Irreligion:  “God’s first Commandment condemns the main sins of irreligion: tempting God, in words or deeds, sacrilege, and simony” (CCC #2118).  Tempting God is a way of testing or challenging Him to act in accord with our will or to manifest His power.  We cannot tempt God, but we can try to manipulate Him.  And trying this is a sin of irreligion.  

A sacrilege is also an act of irreligion.  It is an act or word by which we treat something sacred in a profane way.  This is especially true of the Sacraments.  An obvious and very serious example of this would be the desecration of the Holy Eucharist.  We can also commit a sacrilege by treating a person in a profane way.

Simony is an attempt to put a price on sacred things by trying to buy spiritual graces.  It is named after the magician Simon Magus from the story of Acts 8:9–24.  In that story, Peter and John were praying over the newly baptized and bestowing the Holy Spirit upon them.  When Simon saw this, he offered them money so that he, too, could have this power of bestowing the Holy Spirit.  He was harshly chastised by Peter, and he repented.

Atheism:  Perhaps this sin is the most obvious violation of the First Commandment.  Atheism is a direct denial of God and a rejection of all He has revealed.  It’s a refusal to have faith.

Agnosticism:  One step down from atheism is agnosticism.  The agnostic holds the conviction that God is uncertain and that they do not know if there is a god.  This can come in the form of a direct refusal to make any act of faith, indifferentism, or laziness in the area of faith.  Some agnostics may actually be searching for God; others may not and, thus, can be considered practical atheists.

Graven Images

This Commandment obviously prohibits the making of a false god and treating it as God.  The story of the golden calf found in Exodus 32 is a good example of the direct violation of this Commandment.  It should be obvious that if we create an image and attribute to that image a certain sacred power separate from the power of God, we are breaking this Commandment.

With that said, there is a long-standing tradition within the Catholic Church and various other Christian Churches to honor the saints and Jesus Himself through the use of sacred art.  These artistic expressions can be seen as icons of the saints, statues, stained glass, paintings, crucifixes, and the like.  

From time to time there are people who challenge this practice and suggest that the practice of honoring statues and other forms of sacred art is a violation of the First Commandment.  Is it?

The only way these practices would be a violation of the First Commandment is if we act as if the images of sacred art are godlike.  In other words, if we believe that the piece of art in question has power in and of itself, separate from God, then this is a sin.  But this is clearly not our Catholic tradition.

Because Jesus took on flesh and entered our world, the world itself is capable of reflecting God’s glory.  Art is one way of trying to capture and reflect that glory and beauty of God.

Sacred art offers us a source of reflection, beauty and meditation.  It’s a way of preaching the Gospel through signs and images.  Therefore, when a person prays before a crucifix, that person is not doing so with the belief that that particular crucifix is the source of grace.  That would be foolish.  Rather, praying before a crucifix, or any other sacred image, is a way of using the visual world to honor the spiritual world.  It’s a way of transcending this world so as to connect with God who is transcendent of this world while, at the same time, He is ever present to us in this world.  When sacred art is used in the right way, it helps to draw us to the divine and enter more deeply into divine realities.

The Upper Upper Limit!

To understand what we may call the “upper upper limit” of this Commandment we must look at the wonderful theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

Faith: We are called to have a deep faith in God.  Faith in God means we know Him, believe in Him and understand Him.  It means we foster a true relationship with Him so as to know Him more.  When we have faith, we seek to have more.  The more we know God, the more we want to know God and the more we come to know God.  We are drawn, by faith, to seek Him on an ever-deepening level.

Sins against faith would include any ways that we neglect our duty to seek God and know Him.  It’s important to understand that we have a moral duty to seek God and to seek the truth.  At times we can fail to seek God and grow in personal knowledge of Him because of laziness.  At other times it can be a direct and willful indifference.  Whatever the case may be, if we are negligent in our duty to seek God and to come to know Him, we break this Commandment which calls us to make Him the center of our lives.

Hope: As we come to faith in God, we will also be filled with a supernatural gift of hope.  This gift of hope compels us to seek eternal salvation and to seek a life filled with the virtues God desires to bestow upon us.  The upper limit and positive calling of this Commandment, in regard to divine hope, is that we remain steadfast in all that God speaks to us no matter what we go through and no matter what cross we may carry.  We are compelled and strengthened to continue our pursuit of God and His holy will.

Sins against hope would include despair.  When we give in to despair, we give up on God and give up on His promises to us which we receive and understand through the gift of faith.  Sure, despair can also be caused, at times, by more psychological factors rather than sinful or spiritual factors.  But, nonetheless, despair is opposed to hope no matter how it comes after us.

Another danger that we can fall into is presumption.  Presumption is a very subtle sin which manifests itself in one of two ways.  First, it can manifest itself in such a way that we fall into the trap of thinking we are good enough to make it on our own.  We look to ourselves, in a sense, as our own god.  This is foolishness but when it happens, we believe that we can rely upon our own strength and abilities to fulfill our lives.

A second way that one can fall into presumption is to have an exaggerated view of God’s mercy.  True, God’s mercy is perfect and always there.  But some can fall into the trap of thinking that God will forgive them even though they do not repent of their sins.  In other words, they do not arrive at a true sorrow for sin and, therefore, do not fully convert.  As a result, they presume on God’s mercy.  What they fail to see is that forgiveness is dependent upon one’s sorrow and willingness to change.  If there is no willingness to change, mercy cannot be offered or received.

Charity:  Charity is first of all love of God.  Charity is born when we first have faith in God, believe all that He reveals, and then are filled with hope in His promises.  When this happens, we are moved to a deep and sustaining love of God.

To love God is to make Him and His will the center of our lives.  Nothing becomes more important than God.  Sins against charity toward God would be lukewarmness, laziness, disinterest, and most certainly hatred of God.  Those who have a hatred of God would most likely be confused first in their faith.  But those who have a simple negligence, or are lukewarm, may have faith but subsequently lack the drive to live what their faith calls them to.

Practical Applications

We now can begin to take the moral principles of the first two chapters and apply them specifically to the moral laws of God.  We start with this First Commandment of the Lord.

Let’s first look at ways that it is mortally broken.  Remember that in order to commit a mortal sin we need three things: 1) grave matter; 2) full knowledge; 3) complete consent of the will.

Grave Matter:  What would be a grave violation of this Commandment?  Serious superstition, idolatry, divination, magic, atheism, agnosticism, and worshiping false images would be at the top of the list.  Any one of these acts done to a serious degree would be grave matter.

A good distinction can be found in superstition.  Say, for example, you jokingly refuse to walk under a ladder because it’s “bad luck.”  Well, it’s not bad luck, that’s just superstition.  But something as silly as this most certainly doesn’t fall into the category of grave matter.  However, if you were to make someone you dislike walk under a ladder because you wholeheartedly believed that it was bad luck and you were convinced this would do them serious damage then we might start approaching superstition to a serious degree.  Perhaps a more obvious example of grave matter against the First Commandment would be divinization.  Say, for example, you used the Ouija board to try to contact the dead spirits.  This is clearly grave matter.

Full Knowledge:  The second requirement for this action to be mortal sin is that you fully know it’s gravely wrong.  So, take the person who uses the Ouija board.  Let’s say that on one hand you have a priest who knows all about Ouija boards, and on the other hand you have a teen that is at a sleepover and never heard of Ouija boards before.  There is a clear distinction between the two.  Hopefully, a priest (or anyone who fully knows Ouija boards are wrong) would never use one.  But, if they did, they meet the second requirement for mortal sin.  The teen that is exposed to the Ouija board for the first time may be uncertain and uninformed and, therefore, may not have full knowledge that “joining the fun” so to speak is wrong.  It doesn’t make this action OK, and it’s still a grave violation of God’s Commandment, but the teen may not be fully responsible for joining in at first.

Complete Consent of the Will: Continuing with our example, say the teen does use the Ouija board and knows it’s wrong because his/her parents have carefully taught that it’s wrong.  There is still the question, in this case, of complete consent.  Let’s say that this teen has been struggling with a poor self-image after moving to a new town and new school.  Say that this was the first sleepover for that teen and he/she was trying to make new friends.  The Ouija board is brought out and the teen is immediately horrified but is afraid to say anything for fear of rejection.  It’s this teen’s turn and he/she reluctantly asks a question for the board and that’s it.  Did that teen mortally sin?  Well, it was grave matter, and there was full knowledge that it was gravely wrong, but it’s possible that the circumstances were such that the fear and poor self-image this teen was dealing with diminished his/her personal guilt.  Again, it doesn’t make those actions right, but God sees what is in the heart and will judge accordingly.

This same process of moral reasoning can be applied to any situation and to any moral law laid down by this Commandment.  This shows why Chapter One and Two are so important to understand as we look at concrete moral situations that people find themselves in.

Venial Sin:  As explained above, if all three conditions are met for mortal sin then the sin is mortal.  However, if one or more of the conditions are not met then the sin is only venial.  As far as venial sin goes, there are many levels of severity of this form of sin, but what all venial sin has in common is that it does not completely destroy our relationship with Christ.

The bottom line of venial sins would be, for example, a habitual sin of making money a “god.”  There may be some ways that it fails to meet the full requirement of mortal sin but, nonetheless, any willful attachment to money in an excessive way keeps us from fully turning our lives over to God.

The upper limit of venial sin may simply be a lack of full surrender to God in this area.  Again, take the attachment to money.  Say a person does not really have money as a god but, nonetheless, still struggles with a slight lack of complete trust in God’s providential care, and therefore, worries from time to time about money.  This is not serious by any means and is quite common.  However, for the person who is striving for perfection, it’s important to work toward a total surrender to divine providence.  This means working toward a complete trust that God will provide for every need.

The Second Commandment:

You shall not invoke the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. (Ex 20:7)
Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.” But I say to you, do not swear at all. (Mt 5:33–34)
The second commandment prescribes respect for the Lord’s name. Like the first commandment, it belongs to the virtue of religion and more particularly it governs our use of speech in sacred matters. (CCC #2142).

Have you ever found it to be a strange phenomenon that, when people get mad, they often use God’s name as a curse?  This is strange to say the least.  In fact, it doesn’t really make much sense.  Why would the name “Jesus Christ,” for example, turn into an expression of frustration of anger?  Even saying something like “holy cow” or the like is strange.  Why would we use the word “holy” in that expression?

Perhaps it’s because God’s name is truly holy and worthy of great honor and respect.  Therefore, in a moment of anger or frustration we are tempted to disrespect His name.  This example reveals that one sin (that of anger) can lead to another.

The Bottom Line: No Swearing Allowed

The “bottom line” is that the Second Commandment forbids using God’s name in a profane and blasphemous way.  It forbids that we use it as a curse, a negative expression, and in any careless way.  It also forbids the same improper use of the names of the saints, especially our Blessed Mother.  Lastly, it forbids speaking about anything holy in a harmful or careless way.  To directly criticize Christ’s Church, for example, is a sin against this Commandment.

It would also be a violation of this Commandment to use God’s name in making false oaths.  For example, this Commandment is violated when you swear to tell the truth “so help me God,” and then you lie.  This is also an obvious sin against the Command “Do not bear false witness.” However, when God’s name is invoked prior to the lie, it is a double sin.  

On a more casual level, it is common for someone to say something that another may not believe and then to follow that statement with, “I swear to God!”  Well, even if you are telling the truth, it is careless to use God to make an oath in such a casual way about something that may not be that important.  

There are times when invoking God’s name under oath can be appropriate.  In fact, solemn promises and vows within the Church do just that.  It’s more a matter of how God’s name is used and in what context that determines the morality of it.  Or, making a solemn promise at a civil or Church court with your hand on the Bible is appropriate, as long as you tell the whole truth.

The most important thing to remember is that invoking God’s name is important.  When it’s done, it should be done in a holy way avoiding all carelessness and falsity.

The Upper Limit: God’s Name is Holy…and so is yours!

The “upper limit” of this Commandment is that God’s name is holy and should be used in the form of worship.  We are to honor Him by honoring His name and using it in prayer and praise.  For example, singing praises to God’s name or repeating the sacred name of Jesus over and over can be a holy use of God’s name.  

Our prayer is another example of a holy use of God’s name.  We begin our prayers “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  This invocation of the Triune God is a way of entering into prayer.  Additionally, our formal liturgical prayers often end by saying, “through our Lord Jesus Christ Your Son…” or “through Christ our Lord.”  In other words, we use God’s name in prayer, and saying His name is a form of prayer.

Another positive and holy teaching we take from this Commandment is the use of our own names and others.  First of all, at Baptism every Christian is given a Christian name, or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen.  Often times that Christian name is simply the given name of that child.  But sometimes, especially in certain cultures, it is common to choose a saint name as their new Christian name.  This practice reveals the sacredness of one’s name and the identity that we can take in our good name.  Our name is not just a name; our name cannot be separated from us.  Therefore, a Christian name reveals our Christian identity.

For that reason, great care should be taken to speak well of others and never to curse them.  To curse a person is to curse their name, and that is a violation of this Commandment in that we are sons and daughters of God made in His image and likeness.

We should also realize that we will be marked for eternity with the name of our God.  We will bear His name on our foreheads as Scripture says (Rv 14:1).

Practical Applications

Let’s, again, look at the ways that this Commandment is broken in a mortal way.  From there, other practical venial violations will come clear.

Grave Matter:  What are the grave ways that this Commandment is violated?  As outlined above, direct cursing of God’s name or God Himself is grave matter.  Additionally, a serious lie under oath after invoking God’s name is grave matter.  Another example would be gravely cursing or harming another’s name or reputation.  This also is a grave violation of this Commandment in that each person is an image of God.

Grave violations of this Commandment diminish to venial violations when a curse or oath is of lesser importance.  For example, say a person is careless in speaking ill of another by passing on some harmful information that is true but doesn’t need to be passed on.  This carelessness may not rise to the grave level but is still a violation of this Commandment.

Full Knowledge:  It’s hard to conceive of a situation when someone does not fully know that it’s wrong to speak a curse toward God.  And it’s hard to conceive that someone does not know that lying after invoking the name of God is wrong.  But, as in the example above, it may be true that someone does not know it’s wrong to curse the name of another person.  A good example of this is when you curse someone who seems to “deserve it.”  In that case, it is conceivable that a person may actually think they are doing something OK or even right by hurting the good name of another.  They may think it’s justified, and this can be confusing.  It’s hard to sort things like this out.  A good reflection for this is Jesus on the Cross.  He could have spoken ill of those who crucified Him, and He would have been correct in His condemnation.  But what did He say?  He said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).  He showed great respect for them even though they didn’t “deserve it.”

Complete Consent of the Will:  This is an aspect of this sin that is easier to understand, and it is easier to see how it can diminish our personal guilt when violating this Commandment.  At times, God’s name is taken in vain in a moment of great emotional frustration.  That does not justify it or make it right in any way.  However, extreme emotion can temporarily diminish a person’s personal guilt because that person may be acting out of emotion rather than full consent of the will.

Another example of this is lying under oath.  If a person is faced with some serious moral dilemma and they are seriously afraid of the consequences of telling the truth, they may make the poor decision to lie even if they have “sworn to God.”  As always, this is still wrong, but the fear they face may diminish the personal guilt they have before God.  Again, only God knows the heart, and He will judge accordingly.

Venial Sins:  If we look carefully at the descriptions above of any reduced moral responsibility, we will find that many sins against this Commandment are only venial.  But venial sins must be overcome, so it’s good to be aware of all the ways that this Commandment is broken.  The goal is to strive for the greatest virtue revealed by this Commandment.  Doing that will enable a person to enter into the greatest level of respect and honor for God and others.

The Third Commandment:

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. (Ex 20:8–10)
The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath. (Mk 2:27–28)

The Sabbath Day after the First Creation

The Book of Genesis shares the story of God creating the world in six days and then resting on the seventh.  Whether this took place in six literal days or not is unimportant to this particular discussion of the institution of the Sabbath.  What is important is that this story says: 

On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he 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)

So we see that from the beginning of creation, the seventh day was a special day set aside by God for rest.  Interestingly, this story shows that it was first a day of rest for God.  God, of course, does not need to rest literally speaking.  Therefore, we need to read in this passage a revelation by God that this was not so much a day for Him to rest; rather, it was “a sabbath of solemn rest” (CCC #2168).  The day itself is a day of rest, and that affects all who share in the days God made.  

In this we see that our first parents are called also to share in the day of rest God made.  We are called to share in His creative work (the first six days) by the work and creation we are called to and capable of.  But, worked into creation itself is a cycle of work and rest.  We share in that cycle and should see it as essential to who we are by God’s design.

The day of rest was also made holy by God.  So it should not so much be seen as a day to be lazy; rather, it should be seen as a day to also be holy and enter more fully in the creative plan that we share in God’s holiness.

The Sabbath, which was celebrated on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, came to be a day of spiritual “rest” in the sense of worship of God.  This is especially found in the Commandment given in Deuteronomy 5:15: 

Remember that you too were once slaves in the land of Egypt, and the LORD, your God, brought you out from there with a strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why the LORD, your God, has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

God called the Israelites to not only rest but to also celebrate the memorial of their freedom from Egypt.  This was the celebration of the Passover feast.  Thus, rest took on the form of worship and was an opportunity for God’s people to weekly recall God’s saving action as well as recommit themselves to their own fidelity to God and His covenant.  

By the time that Jesus walked the Earth, the Sabbath law of rest was being abused.  There was a scrupulous interpretation of how it was to be lived.  Jesus, according to many of the scrupulous and judgmental scribes and Pharisees, broke the Sabbath rest on a number of occasions.  For example, He was “accused” of healing people on the Sabbath, which was interpreted as a form of work, thus supposedly violating the Sabbath.  This, of course, is silly.  

What Jesus does is give an accurate and authoritative interpretation to the Sabbath rest.  He states that “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27).  He taught and witnessed that the Sabbath was primarily a day to do good and to honor God.  It was a day for charity and for worship.

Worship in the New Covenant: The Eighth Day of Creation

The seventh day of creation was the day God set aside for rest and worship.  But one thing that we as Christians traditionally acknowledge is that there is an “eighth day” of creation.  This eighth day is the day of the new creation in Christ.  It’s the day of the Resurrection of Christ.  For that reason, Christian Tradition has transferred the Sabbath rest to Sunday.  Sunday is now the day that is to be set aside for rest, worship and charity.  Among the most important things to do this day is worship God through or participation in the Most Holy Eucharist!  The Eucharist is the New Passover, the New Memorial and the New Sabbath celebration.  It’s this day we recall the saving Sacrifice of Christ and share in that saving meal.

In addition to Sunday being the new Sabbath, the Church in her wisdom has instituted various holy days of obligation.  These are days throughout the year when we honor some particular saving action of Christ.  For example, Christmas is perhaps the most known holy day of obligation.  On that day, we honor the birth of Christ, and we are “obliged” to share in the Holy Mass.  

Here is the full list of holy days of obligation that are celebrated by the Vatican:

January 1: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
January 6: Epiphany
March 19: Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Thursday of the sixth week of Easter: the Ascension
Thursday after Trinity Sunday: Body and Blood of Christ
June 29: Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles
August 15: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
November 1: All Saints
December 8: Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
December 25: Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ (Christmas)

Note that I said the list above is the list of holy days of obligation celebrated in Vatican City.  Get ready for what may at first seem confusing!  The reason for this distinction is that the Church law (Canon Law) has given permission to each conference of bishops throughout the world to determine which days remain days of “obligation” for their territory.  

For example, here are the ways that the bishops of the United States have set things up:

The three holy days of obligation that never change:

January 1: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
December 8: Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
December 25: Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ (Christmas)

These two solemnities are celebrated but are permanently transferred to the following Sunday:

January 6: Epiphany
Thursday of the sixth week of Easter: the Ascension

The following is transferred to the following Sunday in most dioceses of the United States:

Thursday after Trinity Sunday: Body and Blood of Christ

The next two are always celebrated as solemnities but are not considered days of “obligation” when they fall on a Saturday or Monday in the United States:

August 15: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
November 1: All Saints

Finally, in the United States, the following two solemnities are still solemnities but are never days of “obligation.”

March 19: Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary
June 29: Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Every conference of bishops for each country/territory differs in regard to which holy days are days of obligation and which are not.  The key is to check with your local diocese.

This may raise a question: “Why is it a sin to miss Mass in one place and not another?”  Good question!  This confuses many especially with the practice of not requiring Mass attendance for some holy days when they fall on Monday or Saturday.  The simple and clear answer is that Jesus did give His Church the authority to determine the ways we worship.  The universal Church (the pope) has, in turn, passed that authority on to the conferences of bishops, and some of those conferences of bishops have even, in turn, passed that authority on to the local dioceses and provinces.

The bottom line is that we are obliged to worship God by our participation in the Holy Mass on the designated days, as designated by either the universal or local Church.  The upper limit is that we are privileged beyond belief to enter into worship of God and celebrate particular aspects of our faith throughout the year.

Rest in the New Covenant: The Eighth Day of Creation

A last point to make is that of rest on Sundays.  The Sunday rest should not be interpreted in the scrupulous way that the Pharisees interpreted it.  Rather, it should be seen in the following ways:

Works of Charity:  In addition to worship of God on Sundays, care should be taken to look for opportunities to perform charitable works on Sunday.  A good example of this was found at a holy convent founded by Saint Mother Teresa.  One day someone saw the sisters planting flowers before a statue of the Blessed Mother on Sunday.  He said, “Sisters, you’re not supposed to work on Sundays.”  The sisters responded, “Oh, this is not work, this is an act of love for our Blessed Mother.”  With that they smiled and continued their act of love.

Works of Leisure:  In addition to works of charity, works of leisure are appropriate for Sunday.  A work of leisure would be any activity that is truly enjoyed or experienced as refreshing.  Hobbies, gardening (if it’s enjoyed), family fun, cooking, etc., could all fall into this category.  The key is that it is refreshing and restful for the person.  Holy leisure is a way of continuing the creation for God with recreation (or re-creation).

Necessary Service:  Some people simply do have to work on Sunday as a way of contributing to the common good or the rest and leisure of others.  Obvious examples would be police officers, doctors, and firefighters.  However, there are other works that can be permitted for the good relaxation of others and to provide basic needs.  For example, gas stations can legitimately be open (people need gas to get to church!), restaurants can serve people who wish to relax with a nice dinner, and there are a variety of other similar needs that must be met.  The bottom line is that we should be prudent and honest as to whether or not this is a good and necessary work that offers a needed or beneficial service to others on their day of rest.

With that said, for those who do need to work on Sundays for the good of society, it is essential that they be allowed to worship and also have suitable time off during other days of the week so as to find the necessary rest God desires for them.  We live in a busy world today and that world needs to do a better job of allowing its citizens to take care of themselves and their families.

Duties of Society

One last important point to make is that the whole of society has a duty to foster the ability of Christians to honor the Lord’s Day.  Government, businesses, civic organizations and the like have a duty to respect the religious liberty of all so that they can worship, rest and offer charity on the Lord’s Day.  Employers must not impose strict requirements that hinder Sunday worship.  Social organizations must see Sunday as a day for worship and family.  The Government should recognize the importance of this day in the lives of its citizens and offer the proper respect for that day.

Over the past thirty years, many cultures have seen a shift in the way that Sunday, in particular, is honored.  Slowly, businesses began opening, which imposed the burden of unnecessary work on many.  Various social activities have begun to take away from healthy family life.  And Sunday worship, for many, is now being crowded by numerous expectations.  Life is getting busier for many as a result, and this hurts the ability for many, especially families, to properly honor the Lord’s Day.

One obligation that we, as citizens, have toward society is to refrain from fostering the secularization of the Lord’s Day.  One example of a particular way this can be done is to refrain from unnecessary shopping on Sunday.  Many stores (most of them) do not need to be open on Sundays.  However, they are open because people use them.  It should be seen as the duty of every Christian to help reclaim the holiness of the Lord’s Day by refusing to participate in unnecessary shopping and the like.  It’s true that there will always be exceptions that may be judged as appropriate, but the general rule should still apply.  One example of a general exception could be as follows.  Say you are having a family gathering and, as you are preparing the meal, you realize you forgot an essential ingredient.  You do not support the idea of stores being open on Sundays, but you know that the one up the road is open.  Is it permissible to go buy that essential ingredient?  Most likely the answer is “yes.”  In the end, it’s a matter of making a good judgment of prudence.

Practical Considerations

It’s hard to clearly identify the specific ways that this Commandment could end in mortal sin.  However, as a way of understanding the various conditions of sin, and especially mortal sin, let’s look at some specific examples.

Grave Matter:  In what ways could this Commandment be violated to a serious extent?  What would be considered a grave violation of this Commandment?  First and foremost the most obvious serious violation of this Commandment would be missing Sunday Mass and/or missing Mass on holy days of obligation.  The requirement to worship God on these days is of utmost importance, and any way that someone fails to fulfill this requirement is a direct and serious violation of this Commandment.

Additionally, it could be serious if someone ignores the aspect of rest to a serious degree.  For example, if someone completely neglects the Sabbath rest and, instead, chooses to engage in unnecessary work, this could be a serious and grave violation.  Specifically, it seems this form of violation, in order to be serious, would require that the work be: 1) truly unnecessary; 2) for selfish reasons; 3) be excessive.

This would also include those who impose this burden on others.  For example, if a business owner sees an opportunity to make extra money by forcing employees to work on Sunday from 7 am to 7 pm, even though those employees will be hindered from worship, family time and rest, this could be grave.

Full Knowledge:  It’s conceivable that there are many who do not fully understand the requirements of this Commandment.  As a result, the cultural norms that seem to disregard the importance of the Lord’s Day can cloud their thinking.  For example, if someone grew up in a family that went to Sunday Mass only 90% of the time and, as a result, never truly understood that the requirement of attending Mass 100% was essential to God’s will, they may not be fully responsible for missing.  As always, this does not make it OK to miss Sunday Mass even once or twice a year.  But it may mean that, if they do miss for what they rationalize as a “good reason,” they may not be fully guilty of mortal sin.  As with the other Commandments, God knows the heart, and God knows the depth of knowledge and will judge accordingly.

Complete Consent of the Will:  Let’s say that you and your family were getting ready for Sunday Mass, and you went to start the car, and the battery was dead.  You tried to get it started to no success.  By the time you get it started, you’ve missed the last Mass.  Are you a sinner?  Obviously not.  You did miss your Sunday duty, but God sees clearly that this was not willful and will most certainly offer His grace to you and your family anyway.

There are other ways that someone could be partially responsible but not fully responsible for missing Mass or for committing other violations of this Commandment.  For example, say a parent flew out for the weekend to visit an adult child in a different state.  And say that this child no longer attends Mass.  The parent asks to be taken to Mass, and this adult child gets very upset and doesn’t want to help.  If that parent just gives in to the pressure so as to “keep the peace,” this is still the wrong choice, but the emotional strain may actually reduce the personal responsibility of missing Mass that weekend.  But with that said, it’s important to note that the good witness of doing all one can to fulfill their Sunday duty is essential.  Sometimes this will cause tension, but we must remember that God’s will must take precedence over everyone else.  This is hard when the conflict is within the family, but we must make fidelity to God our primary goal no matter what the consequences.

Next Chapter: Chapter 4 – Loving Your Family

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