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The Third Commandment

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Our present meditation is on the third precept of the Decalogue. Surprisingly, the Third Commandment comes in three parts. First of all, it prescribes work for six days a week. Secondly, it prescribes the sanctification of what was called the Sabbath in the Old Law and Sunday in the New Law. And then it prescribes abstention from servile work, again for the ancient Jews on the Sabbath, which meant rest, and for us on Sundays and what we call holy days of obligation. My plan is to cover both those three parts and add a somewhat detailed set of recommendations.

First of all, the obligation to work. As found in Exodus the chosen people of the Old Testament were told six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work. Two words. Work and labor are identified in the Third Commandment of the Decalogue. What are we being told? We are being told by God that labor is an obligation for all human beings. We are to work because we must cooperate with God’s work of not only creation in the past but in constantly working, laboring. God provides us with the resources. But we must exert ourselves in using these resources. To prepare this conference I might have come in and well, talked at random, but I worked to put well, this conference together.

Implied in this precept is the obligation to use our free wills back again to that free will. In a broad sense we may say that everything God puts into our lives is a grace. We define grace as whatever God gives us as a means of reaching our heavenly destiny. Consequently everything that in any way enters or touches our lives is on that generic definition a grace. But we will not reach heaven just by getting a lot of grace. We must cooperate. And the Latin verb for work is opus, especially prescribed work, required work or the verb oporari, and therefore co from the Latin con, coporari, means work with, work with whom? Work with God. And I repeat, oporari means to work under obligation, a duty. With whom? With whom? With God.

In other words the essence of work is cooperating with the grace of God. Consequently when we define work as our voluntary cooperation in collaboration with the grace of God. Another, now its collaboration - labor again in Latin is work, but not necessarily prescribed work. And laborare is to work and co from the Latin con means belaboring with and always that con that with is with God. St. Benedict’s motto, ora et labora synthesizes our whole life. Ora, that’s imperative pray - pray to obtain God’s grace-- labora-- work by cooperating with the grace you’ve received. Don’t just pray. I tell people you’ve got a storehouse of grace, my dear, will you please roll up your sleeves and work. Again, one of St. Ignatius’ famous mottoes pray as if everything depended on God and work as though everything depended on you.

One important, very important observation. We are accustomed to associate work with exertion, with distaste, with reluctance, with unwelcome necessity. Do I have to? That’s work.

Over the years, I quoted the saying years ago, work is that which we would rather not do if we could be doing something else. Work qua work is necessary for us as human beings, otherwise we would not reach our destiny. Work is our contribution to our salvation. What is God’s contribution? Grace. What’s work? When we go back, cooperating with grace. But since the fall work has become distasteful, it’s almost become a synonym for what we don’t like, like to do. In other words, work has become distasteful because we have sinned through our first parents and among the effect of original sin that we’ve inherited, is well what else? The dislike for work.

And among what we call the seven capital sins, I prefer to call them the seven capital sinful tendencies, is one, that I know very well from experience, two words, one a nice word, sloth and the one I prefer, laziness. We’re all naturally, spontaneously, congenitally lazy. In other words the First Commandment prescribing our honoring God as our Creator and the Second Commandment bidding us communicate with God and with others about God. Remember? The Third Commandment prescribes our cooperating, our cooperating with God. Worshipping God First Commandment, communicating with God, Second Commandment, cooperating with God, Third Commandment.

Hopefully some consciences will be moved. I never thought of it. The Third Commandment obliges me to work. Yes my dear. Also to be noted that work is of different kinds. There is manual work, with the manos, with the hand. There is physical work with the body, there’s intellectual work. I’ve taught for too many years, the laziest part of human nature is the mind. I can prove it. There is emotional work. I’ve got to put my feelings into what I’m doing. For some people to smile is hard labor. There’s volitional - work using the will. In fact as I’ve said before behind all labor is the will. There is moral work. Working on our will; on our conduct; on our behavior. And needless to say there is spiritual labor. Like staying awake during meditation. Or keeping distractions off the mind. It takes work to pray. It takes effort to kneel down. It takes effort to stay kneeling. Oh the postures that the human body can assume in “kneeling.” Oh they’re kneeling all right, but you’re not quite sure - are they standing, sitting or kneeling. All of this is the Third Commandment of the Decalogue.

Among the Latin phrases that I’ve memorized from scripture this one I like, homo ad laboren avis ad volantum. Man is born to labor as the bird is born to fly. And birds for the record start to fly soon after they’re born. I watched a baby the other day in the airport. Six months old; prying into everything; trying to open this, push that. Now the human will is not yet rational. But remember we have a mind and will from the moment we are conceived. They both developed the secret as we go through life is to use that will with our minds enlightened by faith and work. Sanctity is hard work.

Part two of the Third Commandment of the Decalogue. Sanctification. The obligation to sanctify one day of the week goes back to the ancient Jews. Notice this from the origin of Judaism, distinguished the chosen people from all their pagan counterparts. Why? Because the Jews believed there was only one God the Creator of heaven and earth and this one God wants one day, every week, in fact that’s how the week came into existence. And this in teaching comparative religion I’ve explained to my students goes back, back to primitive revelation. In other words, there are people who believed past tense in there being only one God who wants to be worshipped. They created what we now call the week. This identification, meant not specifically for the Jewish people, in prayer spending one day of the week especially in prayer. Spending one day of the week in coming, sometimes from distant parts, and without automobiles to worship God, that one true God together. That God might be worshipped by the family. And already in Genesis, strange language but it’s there. When God after six days decided to create man, He said let us, plural, make man to our, plural, image and likeness. There’s a plurality in God. God is not a solitary being, that’s our faith. God is a divine family.

As we must say, a Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore that the human families, plural, should worship God as families, plural on one day a week. Each of these Old Testament practices was built on the Jewish faith on there being only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. In other words, Sunday is identified with monotheism. Again, we’re still in the Old Testament. On the Sabbath the Jews were to spend extra time in prayer. They were to worship together in gratitude for and as expression of their cooperative sanctification by God as the chosen people. They were chosen in three ways. They were chosen because they were given selectively the revelation of faith in one true God. They were chosen because they were given selectively the laws that God gave them, synthesized in the Decalogue. They were chosen because from them was to come the Messiah the Incarnate God who as man would be of the, what else, chosen people. Moreover, and this moreover is important; they were to sanctify the Sabbath by abstaining from work.

Let’s be clear. Abstention from labor on the Sabbath in the Old Law was not, well, doing nothing. Sleeping during the whole Sabbath, or sitting immobile-when I watch otherwise intelligent people hypnotized for hours before a television set, you shake your head. Is that a human being? No. Not laboring on the Sabbath for the Jews meant sanctifying the Sabbath by devoting the time that would otherwise be given to work to God. Now in the New Testament we’re still on the level of sanctification.

With the coming of Christ, the third Commandment was elevated by Jesus, further by the apostles, and finally by the Church. The day from the first century was changed from Sabbath or Saturday, to Sunday; and this mainly for two reasons - because Christ chose to rise from the dead on Sunday. There could have been no more dramatic way for Christ to close the Old Testament and institute the New than by lying in the grave all Holy Saturday and rising from the dead on Sunday; and secondly because God again as the third Person of the Trinity chose to descend on the Apostles, the disciples, and Our Lady on Pentecost Sunday.

The Sunday for us Christians is the day especially dedicated to the Holy Trinity to God the Father as Creator, to God the Son and our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier. Moreover Sunday became the one day when Christians were required to assist at Mass as you may know for the first three hundred years in the Church’s history Christians went to Mass every day, as we say in Rome, oni journo - everyday. But as the numbers increased the Church made sure by the fourth century, and the obligation has not changed, and will not change until the end of time; it is a grave obligation for every Catholic to assist at Mass on Sunday.

We go on. The Third Commandment prescribes abstention from work. That’s the generic term in the Old Testament. We know among the ancient Jews the Sabbath, the very name they gave to the well, that special day Sabbath, was rest, abstention from work. And among the Pharisees they made just countless prohibitions of the amount of work and the kind of work you could do on the Sabbath. Very limited; how many steps you can take on the Sabbath. You had to count the number of steps you took on the Sabbath. Christianity from the beginning was not so rigid as were the Jews. This is crucial. What Christianity did besides changing the day from Sabbath to Sunday, Christianity also changed the focus, the concentration in Christianity is on the sanctification of Sunday, of devoting Sunday to God. Where though then, without omitting or totally removing the obligation, not to engage in labor on Sunday.

And Christ already during His public ministry more than once showed the change that he was introducing. He would deliberately, now look, he could have worked His miracles on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Yet to teach all future generations he would selectively choose to work some miracles, especially when there were enough Pharisees around, on the Sabbath. They complained and what He told them, and through them us, that you may know that the son of man is the Lord of the Sabbath. Then He proceeded, to the scandalized Pharisees, work another miracle. And He even, remember, He’d heal people and He’d ask the Pharisees is it all right to do a good work, a work of charity on the Sabbath? Charity they said to themselves, my eye, you don’t work. You don’t ask a man to pick up his mat on Saturday. That’s work.

What then is the Church’s teaching on a large subject, and I want to emphasize this, the law is there; Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation are meant to be days of rest. They are. But they are to be days or rest as the Church interprets or explains. First, and from the beginnings of Christianity the Church has always distinguished two kinds of work. What we now call servile work and well, for want of a better word, non-servile work.

What is servile work? Servile work is physical labor. Servile work is bodily labor. Servile work as the very name indicates is done by slaves or servants. Now regarding servile work is that in which the body is more occupied than the spirit. That is the basic definition of servile work. And it’s that kind of work, this is crucial; it is that kind of work which the Catholic Church forbids on Sundays and Holy Days. We might say, but you cannot use your body with at least well, knowing what you’re doing. Of course - of course. Consequently the distinction when the body is more occupied than the spirit.

However, the Church again, from the very beginning has always made two distinctions or call them exceptions in regarding servile work. Whether servile work is necessary, or it is done out of charity. So first, non-servile work when the spirit is more involved than the body, has never been forbidden by the Church. And secondly, even servile work, not merely tolerated but permitted, even praised by the Church if it is either necessary or done out of charity. And Christ as we said before, dramatized what He was doing by performing works of charity by healing the sick or the paralytics on the Sabbath.

Regarding non-servile, work when the mind is more occupied than the body. Like thinking; we are not to stop thinking on Sundays. Like writing; you cannot write without thinking. You can talk without thinking, I know, I’ve watched it. Words oozing out of the orifice--called the mouth. Writing, teaching, preaching, and of course with emphasis, praying.

Sundays every faithful Catholic should pray more or at least pray more intensely on Sundays. But again regarding those two, I don’t even want to call them exceptions to servile work, necessity and charity. Remember the lives of the saints where they, after Mass on Sundays, would go to the hospitals to take care of the sick. My secretary in New York who had terminal cancer, and a kind friends would come to her on Sundays and well, do some cooking that she could not do by herself and clean up the house. That is not only permissible but it is very praiseworthy. Let’s be clear. We are Christians, we are not Jews.

Now some recommendations. I thought I’d never stop making recommendations. I ended up with sixteen; just a few moments on each one. We have recommendations, call them observations.

First, the post and modern times have been emphatic, pleading with the faithful to keep Sunday and Holy Days of obligation holy. This is the Popes’; one after another and the most outspoken was the gentle Pope John 23rd. The surest sign of a society becoming paganized is where Sunday is no longer a day of prayer and relaxation.

Secondly, it is just another restatement of what I have just said. That’s the way it was when the Jews were given the Sabbath to honor and worship the one true God by doing what? By setting aside one day to give God the honor that He deserves. All around there were pagans. And how we need to realize this, how seduced so many Christians and even Catholics have become, where for many they do most of their work, they tell you on Sundays. I have to. No you don’t. I have to. No you don’t. What a reassessment of our culture should be made.

Number three. We Catholics should be the star witnesses for the sanctification of Sunday. We are bound and the language is the Church under pain of mortal sin. A person would have to go through some extremes and be very conscious of what they were doing to commit a mortal sin on Sunday. But the law is there.

Number four. Sundays are to be a witness to our faith; our faith in God as our Creator; our faith in God become man as our savior; our faith in God as our sanctifier. All of this is locked up in our observance of Sundays. Sundays not only may be or should be, but must be different. And I say this also for religious institutes. Some need to reexamine what they are doing. How they are behaving on what we call the day of the Lord.

Number five. Sundays are days of special graces from God. No question about it. God reserves graces that He will give us only if and when and insofar as we honor His day as He wants us to.

Six, we have Holy Days of Obligation. The more believing the nation the more of those days it celebrates. In our country we have already dropped one after another and there’s pressure to drop them all. That would really, really, give the world the signal America is now a pagan nation. Because there are days which from the early Church were specially, specially sanctified in honor of the mysteries of the faith like Christmas day, in honor of the saints, and especially our Lady.

Seven. The Church to ensure the observance of the Third Commandment makes it binding under grave sin. And this is where bishops and priests need to be enlightened; pray for them that they may see their responsibility in teaching the faithful what is so needed especially in secularized nations like our own.

Number eight. The faithful observance of Sunday is the application of the First Commandment but done together with others. The corporate practice of the First Commandment honoring the one God creator of heaven and earth and doing so together and in giving retreats or talking to lay people - whatever it costs you, I know you will be complaining already in your mind while I’m telling you this. Whatever you have to do to bring your families together to Church on Sundays. But we can’t do it. One of the children has a sports event another one has a date. The mother has to do the cooking. It all depends on where your priorities are.

Number nine. The Third Commandment is the commandment for worshipping God not only as individuals but as societies. Why? Because we need grace, how we need grace, not only for us as individuals we need grace as societies. And God’s condition for giving the grace to societies is that we as a society together, corporately, honor God. If we don’t He won’t give us the grace we need as a society, as family, as a parish, as a religious community, as a diocese.

Number ten. What the Third Commandment spells out for us is the necessity of the Mass in our lives. That at least one day a week we must go to Mass. Why? Because the Mass, faith tells us is necessary for our salvation.

Number eleven - in the early Church that’s how the divine office began, did you know that, among the laity. Recited together especially on Sunday. Whatever you can do to restore that ancient practice of at least one or two hours, at least say vespers.

I know when I was a child in Cleveland I never thanked God enough for my pastor. We had vespers every Sunday afternoon. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. And here is where direct orders of the present Holy Father to his secretary for hours of formal bland conversation whatever you can do to restore benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in the United States; the country needs it.

Number thirteen. Saturday Masses. all right, all right. I’ll repeat it once more, all right. But it’s a concession. So what do the people do? They go to Mass on Saturday night and then spend the rest of the Sunday doing even unmentionable things that should not be done on Sunday.

Fourteen - Holy Days. In the ages of faith and my friends, our age is not the age of faith. Our age is the age of martyrs. We are living in the age of unbelief. And those of us who want to profess our faith; and Sundays are marvelous; we are professing our faith. They are all around us - people could not care less as people have told me, business people; our best days for business are Sundays.

Fifteen - find somewhere the story of our Lady of LaSallete. Read it and weep. The principle message of our Lady of LaSallete was in France in that day and in our country and in our day. pleading with the people to restore Sunday as the day dedicated to the Lord, otherwise dire consequences will follow. They did.

And finally, Pope John 23rd, that I referred to before. According to Pope John 23rd, the single most specific, concrete, definite and fundamental reformation in the Catholic Church is to respect the sanctification of Sunday. And who in his right mind would question that the Catholic Church needs reformation?

Lord Jesus, you chose to rise from the dead on Easter Sunday and your Church ever since has identified Sunday with your day, the Lord’s Day. It was the day on which you proved to the world that you are the master, the master of sin and death but you want us dear Lord to commemorate, celebrate, live, our faith by sanctifying Sunday as your day. Amen.

Tape 5A :55, 12/92

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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