You are viewing an archived page on our old website. Click here to visit our new website.

Home | Join/Donate | Current Voices | Liturgical Calendar | What's New | Affirmation | James Hitchcock's Column | Church Documents | Search

Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 2
Pentecost 2004

A Matter of Life and Death:
Insights from Scripture on the Hallowing and Profaning of the Lord's Day

by Robin Maas

Let me begin with a memory: As a child, I was made to memorize the Ten Commandments -- not the abbreviated version one sees in catechisms but every word of them in the King James Bible. Among the toughest was number three: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy...." It went on and on supplying great detail about just who was to benefit from this day of rest: Ourselves, our children, our servants, our livestock, our guests, foreigners ... everyone! The meaning was clear enough. One kept the Sabbath holy by refraining from labor.

I was about eight at the time, and I recall being duly impressed with the seriousness of this assignment. Because these were God's own commandments, they were written in stone. There was no getting around it. What the third commandment translated to in our sectarian Protestant family was "always go to Sunday school" (for my brother and me) and to "church" for my mother. My father stayed home and enjoyed the paper. We dressed for church -- that meant gloves, hats, high heels, coats and ties. I don't recall ever being late. Afterward there was usually a nice Sunday dinner. Then, in the afternoon, we might do something special, like go for a long drive in the country, visit members of the extended family -- or perhaps attend some cultural event in the city. This was a pattern that many families of the mid-twentieth century era shared.

Today Sunday has become subsumed in "The Weekend" --free time that the world owes us because we all work so hard during the week. That translates, in place of "church", to Sunday brunch at a cool restaurant for late-rising young singles, soccer games and swim meets for over-committed families with school-age children, shopping sprees at the mall for married women and sporting events on the tube for their husbands. For adolescents, Sunday is often a penitential day -- set aside not for God but for homework -- for finally pulling together the science project that was assigned weeks before. For just about all of us, Sunday has become the day for doing chores that have gone undone during the week because we were simply too busy, too tired, or too disorganized to get them done on the six days previous. Sunday is breathing space not so that we can rest, but so that we can get more done.

I don't know whether the third commandment qualifies as the one most often broken nowadays. But I would wager that, in the breaking of it, it is the one least confessed. After all, just how bad is it to pay bills or clean the bathrooms on a Sunday compared to lying to your husband, cheating on your wife or over-reacting angrily to a child's honest mistake? Apart from regular church attendance there is very little awareness of what it means to keep this day "holy" and virtually no real remorse for profaning it.

I should add that my Sunday School teacher did not point out a subsequent (and very disturbing) passage in Exodus that condemns to death whoever profanes the Sabbath with work. (Ex 31:15) But she really didn't have to. At the age of eight, I couldn't imagine why anyone would dare to disobey a commandment from God.

Little literalist that I was, I nevertheless knew a thing or two. I understood that I was not running my own life, that I was entirely dependent on the good graces of other, older and more powerful persons, and that very much indeed hinged on my obedience to them. I was willing (at least in theory) to let God be God -- an absolute authority in my life.

When we grow up, those unchanging realities about our status in life seem to be the first thing most of us forget. And in our forgetting lies our fall, our failure to obey the commandments --those things the Lord Himself says we must or must not do, especially the one commandment that requires us to "remember".

In the case of Israel, it turns out there was -- and still is -- a great deal to remember. The Torah is full of detailed descriptions about how to keep the sabbath holy and, likewise, how to recognize when it is being profaned. That these stipulations could become burdensome, we already know. But there is much to be said for clarity when correct practice is considered a matter of life and death.

What Is Remembering?
I have long read the third commandment in terms of a requirement not to forget to observe the Sabbath properly. Thanks to Pope John Paul II, I read it differently now: It is not enough "not to forget" to keep the Sabbath holy. What is required is to keep the Sabbath holy by "remembering". In other words, the Holy Father is proposing that the very act of remembering is a sanctifying one. In Dies Domini he writes:

Before decreeing that something be done, the commandment urges that something be remembered. It is a call to awaken remembrance of the grand and fundamental work of God which is creation, a remembrance which must inspire the entire religious life of man and then fill the day on which man is called to rest. (DD 16)

Reading this, I had to ask myself, "What can it possibly mean to fill the Sabbath or, in our case, the Lord's Day with remembering (instead of with brunch, football and homework)? And what is it about the act of remembering that is sanctifying? Conversely, why is forgetting, in this context, a sin?"

One of the first things we can say about our memories is that they are necessarily very selective; and so, to keep our lives manageable and ourselves sane, we choose to forget a great deal, especially those things which are disturbing or even haunting in their effects: losses, humiliating failures, frightening events and, in particular, those self-inflicted wounds called "sins". Such memories are repressed -- consigned to a place of darkness in the psyche, where they remain frozen until some (usually unwelcome) surprise suddenly thaws them out and forces them to the surface.

As we age and it becomes harder to remember, we get a little unnerved. The loss of too many memories threatens the loss of self -- it is perhaps the greatest reminder we have in this life of our own mortality. To forget is too much like being forgotten. We have all seen the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease when the person we know and love seems to gradually disappear before our very eyes. And perhaps even more unsettling is the failure of the loved one to remember us. In his forgetting, we too "disappear". So for the most part we want to remember and be remembered, so long as we are free to shape those memories in ways that we find beneficial -- which usually means self-justifying. As long as we can remember, we can continue to be.

Meanings of Memorial
More than any other human document, Scripture testifies to the importance of memory -- and not just human remembering but God's. Memory, to the descendants of Abraham, was a life-giving power. To be remembered was to live -- to rise again -- as a vital force in the family, the tribe, the nation.

In a time before the hope for bodily resurrection became a reality, the worst fate that could befall a man, once departed, was to be forgotten. A fate worse than death, oblivion is what one wished for one's enemies. Thus the gift of children meant far more than wealth and personal happiness. Children were obligated to remember you -- your Name -- and thereby hold you in in some form of perpetual existence. I would argue that remembering a name had then what today we might almost call a "sacramental" significance. Like the word that goes forth from God's mouth, our memories do not return to us "empty", but accomplish what we intend in our remembering: They bring back the dead.

A famous and stirring description of this conviction that links the memory of a man's name to his eternal destiny is found in the book of Sirach. It begins with the line "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations ..." and then lists their accomplishments as rulers, wise men and wealthy, prophets and artists: "There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise. And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them". (Sir 44:1, 8-9)

Since not all, however, can be famous and remembered for their lasting contributions to society, there has to be another way to avoid this descent into nothingness. For the ordinary man, his "memorial" would be his offspring. And this, of course, makes the curse of barrenness a perpetually menacing threat; for once dead, without descendants you would likely be utterly forgotten. Without children -- sons in particular -- to remember your "name", it would be as though you had never lived at all.

To those hapless souls only one solution remained: They might adopt an heir, as Abraham proposed to do with his servant, Eliezer (Gen 15:2-3), or they might try to erect some other form of permanent memorial. Scripture records that David's son, Absalom, "set up for himself the pillar which is in the King's Valley, for he said, 'I have no son to keep my name in remembrance'; he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom's monument to this day". (II Sam 18:18)

In the Gospel of Luke we hear of another memorial in the triumphant song of a virgin who, in an unexpected response to her prayers, was granted a memorial unlike any known before, one which would last forever: "For behold", she sings, "henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name". (Lk 1:48b-49)

In the same vein, there is a beautiful but relatively little known text in Isaiah that speaks to the poignant circumstances of someone who knows he will never have offspring:

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from His people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off. (Is 56:3-5. Emphasis added)

This passage, which speaks words of great consolation to a man who will have no descendants to remember him, is typically cited to show how universal is God's offer of salvation. But when we realize what is at stake in being childless in these circumstances, then the passage says a great deal more than this. It says that dreadful as the childless state may be, keeping the Sabbath (considered to be the acid test of fidelity to the covenant) is ultimately more rewarding than having descendants, for it ensures that one's name will be remembered forever in the Temple of the Lord. Which means, of course, that it will be remembered forever, not merely by generations to come, but by God Himself. A more satisfying form of immortality could not have been imagined.

How can it be that of all the laws laid down for God's people, this one requirement should apparently outweigh all the rest? How can we today possibly understand what was at stake in being obedient to the third commandment in particular? If we have children we love them dearly but do not believe that our eternal destiny hangs on their willingness to remember and honor our name -- much as we might want them to do that. Even if we were to succeed in fending off the tremendous pressures we all face to keep working on the sabbath could we ever bring ourselves to believe that our weekly observance of this holy day might actually be a matter of life and death for us? Life if we keep it and death if we don't? Shouldn't we simply relegate this insight to our collection of interesting bits of culturally-conditioned information about the Bible?

I can think of only one reason why this particular divine decree carried so much weight in ancient Israel and that is this: The Sabbath was understood to be God's own chosen "Memorial". On the seventh day, when the Lord surveyed all that He created and simply enjoyed and loved it for its own sake, He wanted His Name to be remembered forever -- by those He made in His own image and likeness -- just as we want ours to be by those to whom we are related by bonds of blood and friendship. God wants not to be forgotten. He wants us, for one day in seven, to forget our work so that we can recall His work. He wants this day to be filled with remembering, for only then can it -- and we -- be made holy.

Resting in imitation of God allows one the leisure needed to remember all that He has done and all that we owe Him in return. The letting go of our own labor forcibly reminds us that all our "making" is derivative and will someday pass way, that we are the work of His hands, and while our works may not endure forever, our souls certainly shall. God knew that without this weekly remembering, we would soon forget that which cannot safely be forgotten and that our eternal destiny depended on our not forgetting.

Perils of Forgetting
Scripture contains two versions of the Decalogue. The most familiar is found in Exodus 20. Here the commandment is presented as a memorial of God's mighty work in creation: "in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it". (Ex 20:8-11)

In the Deuteronomic version a different work is to be remembered -- the work of divine deliverance:

You shall remember that you were a [slave] in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deut 5:15)

Scripture is clear about what has to be remembered in order to hallow the Sabbath: First, our creaturely status -- that we are indeed like God but not God -- and, second, that as fallen creatures we are in need of deliverance from that to which we are enslaved. That is the kind of remembering of which our Sundays should be full. So let us look now at the way in which the Lord's Day memorializes each of these truths.

There is nothing in Genesis 2-3 to indicate that our first parents simply "forgot" that they were created out of the dust of the earth. But once the choice was made to "grasp at equality with God" (Phil 2:6) the forgetting that results in a loss of self began. And so did human toil -- a perversion of the fruitful and satisfying "work" we were originally given to do:

And to Adam [the Lord] said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, you shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.... In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return". (Gen 3:17-19)

Toil, which is now our lot, profanes God's memorial precisely because it is a punishment for sin. On a day when we are meant to remember that our God is a Deliverer, when we are meant to receive a foretaste of heaven, to toil is to deal in death.

In the first creation account, the original work given to the man and woman -- i.e., their mission -- was to exercise lordship over all the other creatures. This mastery would come through fruitfulness, through procreation. God's stated intention was to people the earth with His own image and likeness and in this way sanctify it: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth". (Gen 1:26-28)

The joy and contentment of this fruitful labor is lost when these two act in willful forgetfulness of their creaturehood. For when man forgets who he is, work becomes "toil" -- embittered with a sense of futility -- and procreation becomes for woman an occasion of searing pain. Life is ever after a struggle for the whole human race and evil seeks relentlessly to coil itself around our ankles. In these circumstances it is easy to forget what Eden -- the Lord's work -- was all about. In fact, it is actually painful to remember the happiness, the effortless abundance and the peace that He intended for us but which is no longer ours.

Is that why it is so hard to keep the sabbath holy? Even in the best of circumstances, no one wants to be reminded of his vulnerability and dependence, of his obligation to worship a Person, and to serve a purpose that overshadows all his own efforts and plans. But in order to suppress these truths, it becomes necessary to profane the sabbath with work -- work that keeps us anchored in the here and now. Thus the day that is to be filled with remembering reminds us now of what we have lost; whereas our own work, which we want endlessly to admire, keeps us focused (we think) on what lies ahead -- on the new and fulfilling future we hope to construct for ourselves.

Despite all the pious rhetoric we hear about the beauties of nature and "finding God on a mountain top" from people who wouldn't dream of darkening a church door, it remains the case that creation is not always an easy or appealing topic of meditation. Probe too deeply and we come face-to-face with a reality we cannot now or ever control: This world and all that is in it belong to God. My life, in the end, turns out to be His work.

So what about the second reason scripture provides for hallowing the Sabbath:

"You shall remember that you were a [slave] in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm...." This, of course, is a reference to God's great act of deliverance in the parting of the Sea. So powerful a revelation of grace and majesty is this rescue operation that it makes of the mixed multitude exiting Egypt a single nation, united and ready to forge a covenant with the God who delivered them. Surely, this is a memory to be cherished, one that compels us to put down the tools of our trade and recollect how blessed, how privileged we have been and to fill heaven and earth with our songs of praise and thanksgiving.

If we are at all familiar with the history of Israel we know that this too turned out to be a problematic memory. Someone who has been rescued from certain death may have one of two reactions: either he becomes, in gratitude, a new possession of the rescuer (You saved my life so it now belongs to you!) or he ends up resenting the one who, in his generosity, returned his life to him as if it were a gift instead of his due.

While Israel began by acknowledging that they now belonged entirely to God, almost immediately thereafter they began to forget how desperate had been their plight, to complain about the rigors of freedom and long for a return to the "flesh pots" of Egypt, to resort in frustration to idolatry and to violate the command not to gather manna on the sabbath.

Slavery, as it turns out, enslaves more than our bodies; it also puts chains around our hearts and minds. In an odd way, it continues to reproduce itself even in those who are no longer slaves. The liberated Hebrews, for example, were so afflicted with a persistent sense of victimization that instead of expressing gratitude for their freedom, they complained. And so the demands on Moses and on God increased. In the end, an entire generation of ex-slaves had to die out before Israel could enter the Promised Land.

If being a creature means one cannot create and govern oneself, to be in need of deliverance is to be unable to help oneself. In either case, it means we are dependent - not God. In effect, it is the same status, the same need, the same memory. And we flee them both by looking forward to "The Weekend".

Ritual Remembering
There is a ritualized corrective to this willful and unfruitful forgetting: The succeeding generations of Israelites memorialized God's act of deliverance in the annual Passover celebration. Once a year every Jew who could traveled to Jerusalem to "remember". This meal, the collective memory of what it meant to be enslaved and then delivered, is still passed from generation to generation through a process of liturgical remembering that requires every Jew to identify himself in the most immediate way possible with his enslaved ancestors:

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. Had not the Holy One, praised be He, delivered our people from Egypt, then we, our children, and our children's children would still be enslaved.
Therefore, even if
all of us were wise,
all of us people of understanding,
all of us learned in Torah,
it would still be our obligation to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt....
Therefore let us rejoice at the wonder of our deliverance
From bondage to freedom,
From agony to joy,
From mourning to festivity,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption.1

The Haggadah is a liturgy of re-invocation, an anamnesis, much like the Liturgy of the Mass. Both are a form of remembering that calls forth the reality it names and raises it to life again. But what must also be remembered in this celebration of deliverance is the terrible cost at which it was purchased: the slaying of all Egypt's firstborn. Only the blood of an unblemished lamb smeared on the lintel and doorposts of each Hebrew dwelling would spare the lives their firstborns. The blood, says God, will be a "sign" for them: "when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt". (Ex 12:13)

Christ - The Cosmic Passover
It cannot be by chance that the "childless" rabbi from Nazareth, knowing He would soon be put to death, chose the Passover meal as the moment when He would reveal to His disciples His own chosen memorial.2 Jesus takes a ritual that is already filled with remembering and fills it with anticipation of an even greater deliverance still to come. In this way He elevates it to a cosmic level:

The Lord ate a specific meal with His apostles, just as all men must eat in order to survive. Yet this meal, apparently intended for only a few, suddenly became a meal for all people, all times and all places. Out of one meal He made the whole of Christianity.3

Out of Israel's most sacred memory, Christ refashions the world. Through the death of the Father's "Firstborn", we are all offered redemption. The Logos, through which all things originally came into being, will permit His own precious Blood to be shed, not so that the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve may return to the forgotten Paradise lost so long ago, but that they might see the Face of God and live forever remembered in His presence.

Here is Saint Paul's recounting of this "new creation":

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me". In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. (I Cor 11:23-26)

This new Covenant, sealed in blood, as were all biblical covenants, requires for its fulfillment the "proclamation" of Christ's sacrificial death. Those who remember what happened on the Cross, like those who remembered what happened at the Sea, must openly -- publicly -- insert themselves into the same location and experience the same peril of condemnation and martyrdom so that they may receive the same grace of resurrection. This public owning of what the world saw as a humiliating execution will be our final vindication when He comes again in glory.

The Cross will carry us
From bondage to freedom,
From agony to joy,
From mourning to festivity,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption.

"Selective" Memory and Communion
That our worthy reception of the Eucharist requires from us the nakedness of the crucified Christ -- a stripping of our sins --is inevitable, given the price paid for our redemption. Yet, like our humiliated ancestors in Eden, the prospect of this stripping sends many of us off on a frantic hunt for fig leaves; and, like the unfortunate guest who showed up at the party wearing the wrong kind of outfit, those who come to Wedding of the Lamb thus attired are placing themselves in real spiritual peril.

As we see with the third commandment, Paul immediately explains how one "profanes" the sacred obligation of participating in the Eucharist:

Whoever ... eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (I Cor 11:27-30)

This is an extraordinary passage -- a terrifying one -- that functions as the New Testament equivalent, I believe, to the chilling passage in Exodus where Yahweh tells Moses: "... everyone who profanes [the sabbath] shall be put to death ... whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death". (Ex 31:14b-15)

The message is quite clear: Just as the Sabbath was profaned by toil, the Lord's Day is profaned by unworthy communions. So offensive to God is this practice, says the Apostle, that those who receive Christ's Body and Blood without a full awareness of what they are receiving and without having laid bare their own souls -- first to themselves and then to the Lord -- are in mortal danger. What is life and hope to the righteous is slow poison to the unrepentant, even to the simply thoughtless. They may not face a public stoning but they may nevertheless, says Paul, sicken and die. And I don't believe he is speaking metaphorically.

A friend described what she considered to be an amazing thing that happened in her local parish on a recent Sunday. The priest informed the congregation that he had some tough things to say, but that he wanted to say them in love. He then proceeded to enumerate ways in which the Eucharist was being dishonored on a regular basis by unworthy communions. The issues of divorce and remarriage, contraception, missing holy days of obligation, the failure to go to confession for serious sin and even breaking the fast with things like coffee and gum were all mentioned as reasons to refrain from receiving. The fruits of his efforts were seen, not in a sudden exodus from the parish but in surprisingly long lines at the confessional.

If the statistics we hear these days are to be believed, it is impossible not to conclude that an appalling number of Catholics are receiving unworthily every Sunday, either because they do not believe they are receiving the actual Body and Blood of the Second Person of the Trinity or because they have not darkened the door of a confessional in years. They have refused, above all, to remember their sins. And should you have the temerity to suggest to these people that it would be to their spiritual benefit to refrain from receiving, they would not have the remotest idea of what you were talking about.

In many cases we can chalk this up to a regrettable ignorance. While we are accustomed to hearing frequent invitations to confession issued from the pulpit and a promise of God's merciful absolution, we seldom hear anything at all specific about the kinds of sins we ought to be confessing -- even to the naming of them. Given our natural human impulse to suppress unpleasant memories, this strikes me as a refusal on the part of the clergy to exercise the life-giving authority with which they have been entrusted by Christ Himself -- a real dereliction of duty, given Paul's description of the ultimately fatal consequences of profaning the Body and Blood.

Much more disturbing, though, is the willingness of some clergy to offer communion to those whom they know are publicly -- and defiantly -- engaged in objectively sinful behavior. Too many such people now approach the altar clad only in the fig leaf of what they consider to be their own clear consciences. The most egregious instances occur when those nationally-known political figures who call themselves both Catholic and "pro-choice" cynically present themselves for communion. In these cases the claim of ignorance does not apply; and the scandal caused by a refusal of those in authority to call these people to account is itself a profaning of the Sacrament.

The prophet Ezekiel saw much the same sort of thing in his own day when he records the words of God inveighing against priests who have "done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them". (Ez 22:26-27)

Which leads me to the conclusion that one of the most immediate solutions to the problem of the profaning the Lord's day through unworthy communions (not to mention missed Masses) is for the clergy to return to an earlier mode of preaching and liturgical practice that will effectively catechize the laity on the reality of sin and deal with its various manifestations by naming them and drawing our attention to the ways in which specific sins permeate and poison our lives.

Saint John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, took pains to make sure his parishioners knew exactly what was at stake when they committed the sacrilege of receiving unworthily. He called them traitors, hypocrites, ingrates and parricides.4 Granted, this is strong, even lurid language, but it evidently achieved its purpose, given the long hours he spent in the confessional.

So let me say it: It is time once again for a little fire and brimstone from the pulpit. No need for a holocaust; a scorching will do.

Intentional Forgetting: We Get What We Ask for
There is a tragic irony that every good priest recognizes: Sunday Mass, which is meant to be the pinnacle of worship, the crowning of the week, is, for the pious Catholic -- especially the daily communicant -- very often an ordeal. We can cite many reasons for this anomaly: ugly, stripped-down churches that offer us no help in remembering our creaturely vulnerability and need for deliverance; stripped-down vernacular liturgies filled with linguistic banalities; stripped-down ecclesial "muzak", and stripped-down, feel-good homilies -- even stripped-down parishioners who come immodestly or otherwise inappropriately dressed for church.

This minimalism, while it may have originally been intended to promote a clearer focus on certain "essentials", has -- with ruthless efficiency -- suppressed our memory of the supernatural and filled our assemblies with intentional forgetting. The result has been a deadly spiritual amnesia. Yet the irreverent and cacophonous atmosphere that prevails at so many Sunday Masses is not due to any one of these deplorable realities -- or even to all of them combined, awful as that may be. Instead of being filled with remembering, our churches are more often filled with irreverence; and at the root of this irreverence is the failure to "discern" the Body and Blood of Our Lord of which all these other outrages are merely symptoms.

There is a simple reality that every parent, teacher, boss and priest ought to know, and that is this: we get what we ask for. The impulse to keep easing standards (as in the elimination of holy days of obligation) will not result in more people in attendance on "Ascension Sunday". The impulse to steer away from supposedly controversial topics in preaching will not keep church coffers full. What so many people in authority today fail to recognize is how life-giving, how dignifying, and therefore how exhilarating it is to be challenged to do the best that we can do and, in the case of our shepherds, to hear them call us to live according to the commandments with the expectation that, given the grace of God, we can do this!

It is truly disheartening to the laity to see how many priests and bishops patronize us by assuming that if they ask for more we will give them less. Moses said it best:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?" But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Dt 30:11-14)

Keeping the Sabbath was not easy in ancient Israel; neither was keeping the Lord's Day in the early centuries of the Church. But what the ancient Israelites and the early Christians both knew and we seem to have forgotten is that in both cases, obedience to God's command to remember Him in the way of His choosing was seen as a matter of life and death. In our own time, the Lord's Day will continue to be profaned until we all come to recognize how high the stakes really are:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day ... then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away ... you shall perish.... I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live. (Dt. 30:15-19)

1 Herbert Bronstein, ed. A Passover Haggadah, Rev. Ed. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, c. 1975, p. 57.

2 For an interesting discussion of this point, see Stanley Brice Frost, "The Memorial of a Childless Man: A Study in Hebrew Thought on Immortality", Interpretation (26/1972), pp. 437-450.

3 Adrienne von Speyr, The Holy Mass. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1999, p. 56.

4 See John Baptist Mary Vianney, "Eucharistic Meditations of the Curé d'Ars", Carmelite Publications, 1961.

Dr. Robin Maas, former Academic Dean and Professor of Spirituality at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, is the founder and director of the Women's Apostolate to Youth in the Diocese of Arlington. Dr. Maas directs retreats, lectures, and conducts parish classes and workshops in spirituality, the teaching of holy women, Scripture, and the religious formation of the young. She is the author of numerous articles on these subjects and of five books. Dr. Maas is married, the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of six.

This essay was originally presented to the Society for Catholic Liturgy Conference held in Pennsylvania September 20, 2003.

**Women for Faith & Family operates solely on your generous donations!

WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.

Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.


All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.

Personal use
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.

Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family –

Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)

Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to or to individual pages within our site.

Back to top -- Home -- Back to the Table of Contents
Women for Faith & Family
PO Box 300411
St. Louis, MO 63130

314-863-8385 Phone -- 314-863-5858 Fax -- Email

You are viewing an archived page on our old website. Click here to visit our new website.