The Demise of the Lord’s Day

Last week I wrote that we will learn better to keep the Lord’s day if we think of it more as a day dedicated to God’s work, to doing his will, rather than to our own. We should do his will at all times, but above all on Sunday. We will find our true ‘rest’ when we rest from doing our own will and learn to do God’s will.

This sets up an order of priorities for Sunday: The practice of the love of God through taking part in the Mass, extra time for prayer and for study of the word of God and the teaching of the Church; the practice of love of neighbor through time spent with family and through the practice of works of mercy. All of this activity should orient us to the true rest, which will also paradoxically involve the supreme activity, of the new world of the resurrection.

When we consider what the Lord’s Day really means and what it is really for, we discover that we have a huge problem; we have a huge problem because often enough it is hard for people to get to Mass, which is but the minimum requirement for the observance of the Lord’s Day.

This problem is also a kind of light, a light that reveals the grave evil and disorder of the society in which we live.

We are still in living memory of a time when most commercial activity in the United States stopped on Sunday. In many places even gas stations closed on Sundays.

Even then, there were already many encroachments. Power plants would have to continue in operation on Sundays. Many factories kept operating on Sunday because it would have been too expensive to shut down the machinery and then start it back up again on Monday. In other words, the rise of industrialism and the need for massive amounts of ‘energy’ introduced a new kind of necessary Sunday work.

Also, Sunday has long been dedicated more to entertainment than too worship. Some historians have written that in 19th century America rural churches, and America was mostly rural, would be filled on Sundays because the only ‘entertainment’ available was listening to a sermon!

With the rise of sports, Sunday became a day for playing or watching baseball or football. The movie “Chariots of Fire”, which is based on a true story about the British runners in the 1924 Paris Olympics, contains a dramatic scene in which one of the runners creates an uproar because he refuses to run in a race on Sunday. His refusal to run seemed rather quaint and archaic, scrupulous even, to the whole sports establishment and also the British King who accompanied the team on the boat trip across the English Channel.

In “Chariots of Fire” the man who stands up for the Sunday rest is a Protestant. In the 19th century, however, Our Lady of La Salette complained to the children about the peasants of the region working on Sunday.

All this took place at a time when by and large things came to a standstill on Sundays and Christian observance was still strong enough to limit the encroachments. Now, with the promotion of the social equality of all religions or none, together with the advent of the internet, whereby are plugged in 24/7, the commercial world runs 24/7. There is no more restraint.

Further, secularization has reached the point in which our national religion of sports demands sacrifices any day (including Sunday) at any time, including for practices, with no regard for any traditional Christian observance. Parents have remained silent in the face of this onslaught because, God forbid they should deprive their children of an opportunity to participate in sports.

The Catholic Bishops of the United States, frankly, have not helped because they did not insist that allowances be made for Catholic practice, even at a time when they might have had some influence. Instead, they began dropping Holy Days altogether, or moving them to Sundays, in order not to inconvenience anyone.

Contrariwise, Jews have typically insisted strongly that allowances be made to accommodate their observances of the Sabbath and also their Holy Days. I grew up in areas where on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) half my class would be absent from school.

So we have now reached a time in which work, or sports, or even school, can effectively makes demands upon us any day, any time. This reveals a huge disorder in society that leads to new forms of slavery.

I would actually say that Sunday observance is not just a religious issue, but a social justice issue, indeed the key issue for true social justice. Social justice means nothing if it does not involve the right order of society; if social justice is reduced to merely economic issues (or environmental issues) it completely misses the larger question of the right order of society. A rightly ordered society would put the observance of Sunday first and the good of the family second, while all work, production, and economic matters would be subordinated to these two human goods.

With the help of God I hope to write some more on this matter in future essays.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.