How to Keep the Sabbath Holy Through Rest, Prayer, and Leisure
Life as a child growing up in the 1980s seems surreal when I consider major societal changes today. My family observed Sundays as a sacred day, one set aside from the rest of the week. We attended Mass together, then usually visited my aging grandmother in her sleepy rural town only a jaunt away in Ohio. Our family enjoyed a large Sunday meal together, one my grandmother always made with love.
No one worked on Sundays, except for the obvious, necessary tasks of making meals and cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. Sundays were for worship, naps, laughter, and leisure. After consuming our midday dinner, my grandma would walk with my dad to take my younger brother and me to the ice cream shack across the street from her house. Waffle cones overflowing with soft-serve vanilla, chocolate, or twist ice cream rounded out our days. And we were all ready, once we returned home, to greet another week involving school, after-school activities, chores, and, for my dad, a professional job outside the home.
What made Sundays stand out, regardless of how our family chose to honor it, was that nearly everything was closed. On the drive home from my grandma’s house – about an hour – I’d gaze outside the back window of our minivan while my parents chatted. Retailers were closed. No one was mowing his lawn. I didn’t notice people patronizing the local grocery stores.
This “closed for Sunday” lifestyle was inherent, and undercurrent of the culture at the time. I don’t recall discussing it overtly, because it was a non-issue. People just generally knew to plan their shopping around Sundays. And it worked.
Of course, healthcare workers, hospitals, and pharmacies remained open for obvious reasons. But few people “ran to Wal-Mart just to grab a few things.”
Over time, I noticed more people saving their weekly grocery shopping for Sundays. Most of the time, I passed by my neighbors, who were outside weeding or mowing or landscaping. It seemed odd, but Ben and I chose to keep Sunday as a holy day. And we have never regretted it.
If we look to Genesis 2:2-3, we read:
On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.
God set the example for us to use Sunday as a day of rest. I consider the words “God blessed the seventh day,” meaning it was set aside as something sacrosanct, a day unlike the rest of the week.
The Jewish people traditionally honor their Sabbath (Saturdays) as The Lord’s Day, because it is a memorial of Israel’s freedom from their enslavement in Egypt (CCC 2170). We rest on the Sabbath so that we can remember God’s goodness and praise Him for all He has done throughout the ages for His people.
For Christians, the Sabbath is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Messiah, because it’s the day of Resurrection. Therefore, we honor Sundays as a holy day so that we can recall the glorious sacrifice of Jesus’s Paschal Mystery. Remembrance of the Resurrection renews our hope and strengthens us in our Christian walk.
How do we rest on Sundays? Many modern westerners are caught in a web of activities, including (unfortunately) sports and recreational activities that are scheduled on weekends. I have heard many people lament that Sunday is their “only day” to catch up on housework, laundry, and grocery shopping, because the rest of the week is filled to the brim with school, professional work outside the home, and kids’ extracurriculars.
Keeping Sunday holy in our families might look like rearranging our schedules to accommodate typical household work throughout the week. For instance, assigning each child (old enough, of course) to be responsible for his or her own laundry; commissioning the family to break down chores, one at a time, in the evenings or after sports’ practices conclude on Saturdays.
Even beginning with a scheduled respite, in which all family members take one hour to nap or read or do something solitary and quiet provides a start.
In the Gospel of Mark, we learn that Jesus, though often rebuked for his “unlawful” observances of the Sabbath, retorted to the Pharisees and scribes, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (2: 27). What He meant was that “the sabbath was for doing good rather than harm, for saving life rather than killing. The sabbath is the day of the Lord of mercies and a day to honor God” (CCC 2173).
In order to live out the joy of our Christian faith, it is necessary to include prayer as part of our weekly Sabbath experience. For most of us, this includes attending worship services. Beyond that, we can gather with family to pray a Rosary, meditate on the Gospel reading, or discuss ways we have seen God working in our lives the past week.
In our home, we circle around each family member, who mentions at least three things for which they are grateful to God. This centers our minds and hearts around God’s goodness and mercy, which is one way to honor the Sabbath well.
Remember that prayer doesn’t have to be formal in order for it to be a powerful way to increase your intimacy with God. He doesn’t require fancy or flowery language, only that we bring our hearts to Him with our needs, desires, and questions.
Finally, honoring the Sabbath includes leisure. For many Americans, leisure is equivalent to laziness. However, St. Thomas Aquinas defined eutrapalia as “the virtue of right recreation.” In other words, working without respite is actually an offense against the virtue of resting and relaxing. Humans are not machines. We are not designed to be in a constant state of activity without cycling through moments of relative ease.
Interestingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that leisure as an expression of honoring the Sabbath includes remembering and caring for those in “poverty and misery” who are unable to break from their work because of their life circumstances (2186). We spend time with our families, discussing ways we can connect with the elderly, sick, homebound, and even our extended families whom we don’t see often.
In this way, we can brainstorm which Works of Mercy to which we are called as a family. We might discover that we are called to volunteer at our local soup kitchen once a week, visit a nursing home, bring a meal to a convalescent, write a letter or send a card to a relative far away.
In conclusion, life is complicated for most of us. The point of learning to Sabbath well does not mean leaping into rigid ways of altering our current way of life. As God usually works in our lives, He asks us to make gradual, but steady, changes. Every family will face its own challenges to honoring the Sabbath, but if we can transform the way we enter into Sundays by making a small change in rest, prayer, and leisure, we will notice great spiritual fruits over time.