In today's First Reading, we listen again to the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Jewish Law and of Christian morality. The third commandment (and second longest) instructs us to “Remember to keep holy the sabbath.”
During the sabbath, which lasted from sundown on Friday until three stars appeared in the sky on Saturday night, the Israelites and aliens living in the community were to abstain from work, for the Sabbath commemorated God's day of rest after the six days of creation. The sabbath, however, was more than just a day of rest; it was a sign of the covenant God had made with Adam and Eve at creation, a sign of the family bond of self-giving love that had been established between God and His human children.
As Dr. Scott Hahn points out in A Father Who Keeps His Promises,“[God] made the sabbath to be the sign of covenant...As such, the seventh day doesn't signify God's exhaustion but rather His exuberance – in calling His children to the end for which He made us: to rest in our Father's blessing and holiness, now and for all eternity” (49).
The sabbath, as Dr. Hahn explains, allowed the Israelites to rest from their constant work and to take time for God, time to rest in Him, to worship Him, to focus on Him, and to accept His blessings and relish them. God knew His people very well. He knew that they would get distracted and turn their attention and love to things other than Him. He wanted to remind them frequently of the covenant they had made with Him and to help them to keep it. That's why He commanded, “Remember to keep holy the sabbath.”
How does this commandment apply to us today when we celebrate Sunday instead of the Jewish sabbath?
The Catechism explains that Sunday, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, “symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ's Resurrection” and “fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man's eternal rest in God” (#2174, 2175).
Sunday is still a day to focus on God and on the New Covenant He established with us through Jesus Christ. Therefore, Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays (or Saturday evening). The Catechism makes this requirement very clear: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (#2181).
Why is Mass attendance so important? The Catechism answers: “Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God's holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (#2182).
Further, although we are no longer required to abstain from all work on Sundays, we must take care to make Sunday a day of rest and leisure as much as possible
Again, the Catechism explains, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health” (#2185).
In other words, although we must strive to focus on God throughout the week and to make Him the center of our lives every day, on Sundays (the Christian sabbath) God gives us the opportunity to set aside some special time to grow closer to Him in intimate prayer and self-giving love.