The longest biblical text in the Decalogue is for the Third
While both Exodus and Deuteronomy prescribe the Sabbath, the
motive and the manner of its observance are different. Both passages, though
lengthy, should be quoted in full.
In Exodus, the Sabbath is a weekly commemoration of Gods
Remember the sabbath day and keep
it holy. For six days you shall labor and do your work, but the seventh is a
sabbath for Yahweh, your God. You shall do no work that day, neither you nor
your son nor your daughter nor your servants, men or women, nor your animals,
nor the stranger who lives with you. For in six days Yahweh made the heavens
and the earth and the sea and all that these hold, but on the seventh day He
rested; that is why Yahweh has blessed the sabbath day and made it sacred
In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is prescribed as a weekly
commemoration of Gods deliverance of His people, as the following words
Observe the sabbath day and keep it
holy, as Yahweh, your God, has commanded you
Remember that you were a servant in the land of
Egypt, and that Yahweh, your God, brought you out from there with mighty hand
and outstretched arm; because of this, Yahweh, your God, has commanded you to keep
the sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
No Jewish observance figures more prominently in the New
Testament than the Sabbath. Christianity retained the Sabbath and elevated it
to a unique dignity.
Old Testament Observance
Observing the Sabbath was one of the most important precepts
of pre-Christian Judaism. It was developed independent of the temple and became
identified with the synagogue, even among the Jews of the dispersion, who lived
far from Jerusalem. The Sabbath marked off the Jewish people from the Gentiles,
and for much of their history was the one visible sign of being a true
As the rabbis began to explain the meaning of the Sabbath
rest, a variety of interpretations arose. There were no less than thirty-nine
types of work classified by experts in Judaic law. Forbidden on the Sabbath
were the lighting of fire, clapping the hands, visiting the sick, and walking
beyond a certain distance. A Sabbath days journey, referred to by St. Luke,
was about three thousand feet (Acts 1:12), unless a person set up a temporary
domicile by depositing a personal possession some distance from home.
New Testament Teaching
Jesus observed the Sabbath according to reasonable
standards, and occasionally taught in the synagogues on the Sabbath (Mark 6:2;
Luke 4:16, 31).
But soon the Pharisees began to criticize His disciples for
rubbing grain between their hands on the Sabbath, which was condemned as work.
Christ was especially severe in rebuking those who condemned His performing
miracles of healing on the Sabbath.
His decisive teaching is summed up in the sentence that,
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is
master even of the Sabbath (Mark
2:27). In saying this, Jesus laid the foundation for the Christian observance
of the Third Commandment. There is, indeed, to be one day set aside each week
to become what it now is, the Lords Day. But the emphasis is to be on giving
the day to the Lord.
There are references in apostolic times to the reading of
the prophets and the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) on the Sabbath
to present the gospel to Jewish audiences (Acts 13:14, 16:13). But soon the
Judaizing Christians tried to impose the Sabbath observance on Gentile
Christians. The result was that Paul declared that no one may be held bound to
observe the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16), until finally Christians were completely
freed from the Jewish obligations of the Sabbath law.
The name Sunday for the first day of the week was borrowed
from the Romans who had borrowed it from the Egyptians. It was dedicated among
the pagans to the sun which was worshipped as a god. But already in the first
century, Christians understood Christ as the Sun of Justice (Malachi 4:2),
and therefore the one true God who became man. He was the one whom they
worshipped on Sunday.
Moreover, the name in Christian language was changed to the
Lords Day, as used by St. John the Apostle during his exile for the faith.
I was on the island of Patmos, he wrote, for having preached Gods word and
witnessed for Jesus; it was the Lords Day and the Spirit possessed me
The Christian practice of meeting on the first day of the
week to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice is clearly described in the Acts of
the Apostles and in St. Paul (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2). In The Teaching of
the Twelve Apostles(first
century), the faithful are told, On the Lords Day, assemble in common to
break bread and offer thanks (eucharistesate);
but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure: (Didache 14).
St. Ignatius of Antioch (died 107 A.D.) speaks of Christians
as no longer observing the Sabbath but living in the observance of the Lords
Day, on which also our Lord rose again (Letter to
the Magnesians, 9).
With the end of the great persecutions in the early fourth
century, the Church began to make laws on the proper observance of Sunday. Thus
in Spain, the bishops legislated that, If anyone in the city neglects to come
to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that
he may be corrected (Council of Elvira, 306 A.D.). About the same time laws
were passed requiring the faithful to hear Mass and rest from servile work on
Sunday. In drafting these laws, it was stated that both practices go back to
the teaching of the apostles.
Over the centuries, Sunday became established as the
principal feast day, each week, for the faithful. Three reasons were given:
- It is the first day, the day on which God, changing darkness and
matter, created the world (St. Justin Martyr, 165 A.D.).
- It is the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the
dead (St. Justin).
- It is the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost,
in the form of tongues of fire (St. Isidore of Seville, 636 A.D.).
The new Code of Canon Law opens its legislation on Feast
Days with several canons pertaining to the proper observance of Sunday. It
also identifies what have come to be called holy days of obligation.
The Lords Day, on which the
Paschal Mystery is celebrated, is by apostolic tradition to be observed in the
universal Church as the primary holy day of obligation
In the same way the following holy
days are to be observed: the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany,
the Ascension, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, the feast of Mary the
Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, the feast of St.
Joseph, the feast of the Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul, and the feast of All
However, the Episcopal Conference
may, with the prior approval of the Apostolic See, suppress certain holy days
of obligation, or transfer them to a Sunday
On Sundays and other holy days of
obligation, the faithful are obliged to assist at Mass. They are also to
abstain from such work or business that would inhibit the worship to be given
to God, the joy proper to the Lords Day, or the due relaxation of mind and
The obligation of assisting at Mass
is satisfied whenever Mass is celebrated in a Catholic rite, either on a holy
day itself or on the evening of the previous day (Canons 1246-1248).
Accordingly, the Catholic Churchs understanding of the
Third Commandment could not be clearer. The faithful are gravely bound to
worship together on Sundays and holy days of obligation by participating in the
Sacrifice of the Mass. This is their primary obligation in observing this
commandment of the Decalogue.
They are also to avoid such work or business as would either
interfere with their worship of God, or prevent them from celebrating the
Lords Day with peaceful joy, or deprive them of such rest and relaxation of
mind and body as every person requires.
Modern popes have been outspoken to public officials and
heads of business and industry, urging them to give the people freedom to
worship and rest on Sundays. Pope John XXIII called it a heavy
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