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The Sunday Zone:
Keeping the
Lord's Day Holy

by Christopher M. Bellitto

I don't like being told what to do or when to do it, do you? For me, that includes when to work or relax, when to sleep or eat, or even when to pray.

Maybe you feel the same way—especially about Sunday. Have you ever felt that you had to pray on Sunday by going to Mass? Have you experienced Sundays when you didn't want to go and almost felt forced to attend Mass? After all, there's so much else to do: visit your friends, go shopping or see a movie at a mall, hang out in chat rooms on the Web and, above all, play or watch football.

Part of the problem may be the very words we use: Yes, there's a commandment to keep the Lord's Day holy, but it's a choice that benefits you—spiritually, mentally and physically. That's what this Youth Update invites you to consider.

What's a Sabbath?

Mass is part of the Catholic Sunday, but we all have more choices to make that day. Putting aside a special day to rest and think about your relationship with God has a very long history that didn't start with Christianity. It comes from our Jewish ancestors and was part of the world that Jesus, a devout Jew, knew.

The idea of setting one day aside comes from the very first book of the Bible. In Genesis 2:2-3, we read that God spent six days creating the world. Then the tempo changed. "So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation."

It's with Moses and the Ten Commandments that God lays down the requirement of worship on one day above all others: "Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord, your God....In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy" (Exodus 20:8-11).

The point of the first two books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, seems to be that the sabbath is holy because of what the Israelites were told not to do, in addition to the rules for what they should do.

God told the Israelites that on the sabbath they were not to do any work. In the difficult physical life which the Israelites led, taking a day off was a real break. Being told not to work must have been a source of great joy for them.

But God also told them to keep the sabbath holy because he had consecrated one day of the week. God sanctified that day, which became Saturday in our work week. The Jewish sabbath, to be specific, goes from sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night. (Islam has established a different sabbath.)

The Jewish sabbath was to be a day of joy, of prayer, of meals with family and of spending time together away from the normal pressures and obligations of the work week. There are several Gospel scenes where Jesus can be seen praying on the sabbath in synagogues and spending time with his family and friends.

Why Sunday?

Sunday originally was celebrated by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans as "the day of the sun." Christians transformed the day of the sun into a weekly celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. Pope John Paul II reminds us of this when he says, "It is Easter which returns week by week."

One New Testament account tells us that the Christians met to break bread "on the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7), which they called the "Lord's Day." For a time, it appears that Christians who were of Jewish origin marked both the Jewish Saturday and the Christian Sunday (maybe anticipating our own two-day weekend!).

Sunday seems to have become the Christians' special day for two reasons. First, they wanted to distinguish themselves from the Jewish sabbath on Saturday. Second, Sunday was the day Jesus rose from the dead, so it was natural to celebrate the resurrection every week on the day when Jesus first came back to life.

One early Christian writer, Justin Martyr, put the idea of the "sun's day" and the "Son's day" together: "Sunday...is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead on the same day." Jesus, the Son of God, fills our lives with light, similar to the way the sun pushes back the darkness of night, which can symbolize sin.

These ideas seem to go together neatly, but it was hard for Christians in the first few centuries of the Church to share the Eucharist on Sunday. For about three centuries, Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. To be a Christian was to be a criminal.

Until the 300s when Christianity was tolerated and then made the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians had to work on Sunday. They probably attended the Eucharist early in the morning or late at night. In the city of Rome itself, they crowded in the catacombs underground to avoid being caught. (And we think we have a tough time getting to Mass!)

In the year 321, the emperor Constantine, who was a follower of Christianity, declared that the "venerable day of the sun," Sunday, would be a day off for everyone. But it wasn't until the year 506 that a Church council laid down a rule that Christians had to attend Mass every Sunday.

Sunday All Week

All Catholics are expected to go to Mass on Sunday, but we should go because we want to, not just because we have to. Now, let's be honest: Some Sundays we just don't feel like going to church. Or we have so many other things going on that we can't quite fit Mass into our schedules. But there are several ways to make Mass and Sunday special.

Make Mass the focus of the week before. All you do directs you toward the celebration of who you are, who Jesus is and why he died for you. You can reflect at Mass on how God helped you during the past week and when you could have done better work as a Christian. Could you have been more open to someone who is different than you? Could you have tried to reach out to someone who hurt you?

Then make Mass a reservoir for the coming week. Remember at Mass that you've been baptized as God's child. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Well, God created you too (only more recently), so on the seventh day you can think about what being created by God means to you.

If you have been confirmed, on Sunday think about that extra help the Holy Spirit can give you. Remember that every Sunday celebrates the first Easter, when Jesus died for you and rose so you could be forever happy. Resolve to do better the next week in living your Christian life.

Let Sunday recharge your batteries for Monday through Saturday, just as the earliest Christians tried to do.

Good Habit

Instead of "fitting Mass in," see if you can change your schedule to work around Mass. Make it the focus of the day.

Going to Mass when you don't want to may not be such a bad idea. You might fall into a rhythm, creating a regular time when God can speak to you. You never know what might strike you from a homily or the readings or even one of the hymns.

You can become more involved at Mass itself. Become an altar server. Practice your public speaking skills by volunteering as a lector. If you're a "people person," join the group that says "Welcome to Mass" and helps people find seats or hands out missalettes or bulletins.

Day of Rest

From the early days of Sunday sabbath, it was a day not only to attend the Eucharist, but also to rest. Now that didn't mean simply to sit around and do nothing.

The Church's leaders wanted Christians essentially to do what the Jews were doing: taking a break from their busy schedules, spending time with each other, catching up with the people they lived with but too frequently during the week just raced by on their way from one thing to another.

In some ways, your life may mirror this need. All during the week you might juggle school, homework, chores, sports practices and games, meetings at church or with some group to which you belong. Your parents, brothers and sisters might become blurs you run past on your way from here to there.

Your parents might be stressed out, too. They might feel bad that they can't spend more time with you, even though they're making sacrifices like working two jobs or extra hours to pay the bills for their families.

Some of those early Church leaders had advice for their own people that we could use today. They wanted Sunday to be a day of rest that was not just physical, but also spiritual. They want you to recharge your emotional batteries, to just relax.

Sometimes you might feel that there's so much to do (class projects, e-mail, games, extra work to get ready for the SAT), that you can't afford to lose Sunday. I used to think that way in high school, too, until I started to burn out. I learned that if you take some time off to relax, even one afternoon a week, you actually are fresher and sharper for all your other activities during the rest of the week.

Pope John Paul II put it this way when he said we have to "rediscover Sunday": "Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ!...Time given to Christ is never time lost, but is rather time gained."

Maybe Sunday is also a day to take a break from sin. Now I'm not saying that we're breaking the law or God's commandments every minute from Monday morning to Saturday night. But we rest in God best when we follow God's plan for us. So Sunday could be a day to listen to God and try to get in touch with God's plan for you.

Seize the Day!

You can also start a weekly Sunday tradition by taking one action that sanctifies the day and yourself. The Book of Isaiah says that one way of sharing yourself is to put another person's interests ahead of your own: "If you hold back your foot on the sabbath from following your own pursuits on my holy day,...if you honor [the Lord's day] by not following your ways, seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice—then you shall delight in the Lord" (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Sharing a little bit of yourself and your time is one way to make the sabbath holy. How about calling your grandmother and filling her in on your life? Perhaps there's a soup kitchen in your neighborhood that could use an extra pair of hands. If your parents need a break, you could babysit your younger brother or sister (even if you think he or she is a pest). Thank somebody you might normally take for granted.

And if you ever feel guilty about taking time out for yourself and others on Sunday, remember that even God took a day off after creating the world. If God deserved a break, don't you?

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Church history at St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, and the author of Lost and Found Catholics: Voices of Vatican II (St. Anthony Messenger Press). This is his 10th Youth Update.

Bianca Sabrkmani (14), Jessica Martin (16) and Tricia Moye (15), all of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park, Florida, worked at a fast pace to preview this issue, suggest improvements and ask the questions you might have posed. Walt Smith, parish youth minister, gathered the group on Youth Update's behalf.


Homing In on the Zone

"Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life." —Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2186

    1. LOOK at something deeply.

    2. LISTEN to God's word—and to human words—with care.

    3. QUIET your heart.

    4. READ inspiring words.

    5. EAT with your family.

    6. REST!

    7. HELP at home.

    8. JOIN the Sunday celebration.

"Through Sunday rest, daily concerns and tasks can find their proper perspective: the material things about which we worry give way to spiritual values;....Even the beauties of nature...can be rediscovered and enjoyed to the full...." —Pope John Paul, Dies Domini (The Day of the Lord), #67



You said to get more involved with the Mass. What are the requirements for helping—and how could I help?


It's great to hear you want to participate more at Mass. Your desire to serve is the most important requirement. Both males and females can be altar servers, provided your bishop says it's O.K., but no special permission is needed for anyone to be a reader (lector). Some parishes allow older teenagers to be extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist who distribute Communion under the form of bread or wine. Usually, your pastor or other trained teachers will prepare you to assist in these ways.


Are there any ways we are not allowed to serve?


Only an ordained priest can actually celebrate the Eucharist and only a priest or a deacon can proclaim the Gospel and preach a homily. Apart from that, nearly anything is open to you. Remember, even if you are a member of the congregation, you can actively participate in Mass by singing, praying, focusing on the message from the pulpit and the action of the Eucharist, offering the gifts and opening your heart. In all cases, you can unite yourself with the sacrifice of Jesus.


Could you say more about the Jewish sabbath and how it can help us honor Sunday?


Our Sunday celebration of prayers and good deeds is tied closely to Jewish tradition. Sunday Mass is the Catholic observance of God's third commandment to the Hebrews to keep the sabbath holy. Jews didn't just rest on their sabbath. They praised and worshiped God with joy, usually in synagogues. Jesus and Paul, who were Jews, preached in synagogues on the Jewish sabbath. Jesus also said it was fine to do good deeds in charity on the sabbath.


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