On July 30, 1998, Pope John Paul II promulgated the apostolic letter Dies Domini [The Lord's Day], challenging Catholics to rediscover the true meaning behind the Sabbath Day and, consequently, to "not be afraid to give their time to Christ." This excerpt (pars. 4‒7, 11‒15) was taken from the Vatican website.
Until quite recently, it
was easier in traditionally Christian countries to keep Sunday holy because it
was an almost universal practice and because, even in the organization of civil
society, Sunday rest was considered a fixed part of the work schedule. Today,
however, even in those countries which give legal sanction to the festive
character of Sunday, changes in socioeconomic conditions have often led to
profound modifications of social behaviour and hence of the character of
Sunday. The custom of the “weekend” has become more widespread, a weekly period
of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in
cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days.
This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects
if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people’s development and
to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. All of this responds not
only to the need for rest, but also to the need for celebration which is
inherent in our humanity. Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental
meaning and becomes merely part of a “weekend,” it can happen that people stay
locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see “the heavens.”
Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so.
disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the
celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord’s Day
holy, and the “weekend,” understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation.
This will require a genuine spiritual maturity, which will enable Christians to
“be what they are,” in full accordance with the gift of faith, always ready to
give an account of the hope which is in them (cf. 1 Pt 3:15).
In this way, they will be led to a deeper understanding of Sunday, with the
result that, even in difficult situations, they will be able to live it in
complete docility to the Holy Spirit.
this perspective, the situation appears somewhat mixed. On the one hand, there
is the example of some young Churches, which show how fervently Sunday can be
celebrated, whether in urban areas or in widely scattered villages. By
contrast, in other parts of the world, because of the sociological pressures
already noted, and perhaps because the motivation of faith is weak, the
percentage of those attending the Sunday liturgy is strikingly low. In the
minds of many of the faithful, not only the sense of the centrality of the
Eucharist but even the sense of the duty to give thanks to the Lord and to pray
to him with others in the community of the Church, seems to be diminishing.
is also true that both in mission countries and in countries evangelized long
ago the lack of priests is such that the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist
cannot always be guaranteed in every community.
this array of new situations and the questions which they prompt, it seems more
necessary than ever to recover the deep doctrinal foundations underlying
the Church’s precept, so that the abiding value of Sunday in the Christian life
will be clear to all the faithful. In doing this, we follow in the footsteps of
the age-old tradition of the Church, powerfully restated by the Second Vatican
Council in its teaching that on Sunday “Christian believers should come
together, in order to commemorate the suffering, Resurrection and glory of the
Lord Jesus, by hearing God’s Word and sharing the Eucharist, and to give thanks
to God who has given them new birth to a living hope through the Resurrection
of Jesus Christ from the dead (cf. 1 Pt 1:3).”
is a day which is at the very heart of the Christian life. From the beginning
of my Pontificate, I have not ceased to repeat: “Do not be afraid! Open, open
wide the doors to Christ!” In the same way, today I would strongly urge
everyone to rediscover Sunday: Do not be afraid to give your time to
Christ! Yes, let us open our time to Christ, that he may cast light
upon it and give it direction. He is the One who knows the secret of time and
the secret of eternity, and he gives us “his day” as an ever new gift of his
love. The rediscovery of this day is a grace which we must implore, not only so
that we may live the demands of faith to the full, but also so that we may
respond concretely to the deepest human yearnings. Time given to Christ is
never time lost, but is rather time gained, so that our relationships and
indeed our whole life may become more profoundly human.
If the first page of the
Book of Genesis presents God’s “work” as an example for man, the same is true
of God’s “rest”: “On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done” (Gn 2:2).
Here too we find an anthropomorphism charged with a wealth of meaning.
would be banal to interpret God’s “rest” as a kind of divine “inactivity.” By
its nature, the creative act which founds the world is unceasing and God is
always at work, as Jesus himself declares in speaking of the Sabbath precept: “My
Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17). The divine
rest of the seventh day does not allude to an inactive God, but emphasizes the
fullness of what has been accomplished. It speaks, as it were, of God’s
lingering before the “very good” work (Gn 1:31) which his hand has
wrought, in order to cast upon it a gaze full of joyous delight.
This is a “contemplative” gaze which does not look to new accomplishments but
enjoys the beauty of what has already been achieved. It is a gaze which God
casts upon all things, but in a special way upon man, the crown of creation. It
is a gaze which already discloses something of the nuptial shape of the
relationship which God wants to establish with the creature made in his own
image, by calling that creature to enter a pact of love. This is what God will
gradually accomplish, in offering salvation to all humanity through the saving
covenant made with Israel and fulfilled in Christ. It will be the Word
Incarnate, through the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit and the
configuration of the Church as his Body and Bride, who will extend to all
humanity the offer of mercy and the call of the Father’s love.
the Creator’s plan, there is both a distinction and a close link between the
order of creation and the order of salvation. This is emphasized in the Old
Testament, when it links the “shabbat” commandment not only with
God’s mysterious “rest” after the days of creation (cf. Ex 20:8-11),
but also with the salvation which he offers to Israel in the liberation
from the slavery of Egypt (cf. Dt 5:12-15). The God
who rests on the seventh day, rejoicing in his creation, is the same God who
reveals his glory in liberating his children from Pharaoh’s oppression.
Adopting an image dear to the Prophets, one could say that in both cases God
reveals himself as the bridegroom before the bride (cf. Hos 2:16‒24; Jer 2:2; Is 54:4‒8).
certain elements of the same Jewish tradition suggest, to reach the heart of
the “shabbat,” of God’s “rest,” we need to recognize in both the Old and
the New Testament the nuptial intensity which marks the relationship between
God and his people. Hosea, for instance, puts it thus in this marvelous
passage: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the
field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will
abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down
in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in
righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth
you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (2:18‒20).
“God blessed the seventh day and made it
holy” (Gn 2:3)
Sabbath precept, which in the first Covenant prepares for the Sunday of the new
and eternal Covenant, is therefore rooted in the depths of God’s plan. This is
why, unlike many other precepts, it is set not within the context of strictly
cultic stipulations but within the Decalogue, the “ten words” which represent
the very pillars of the moral life inscribed on the human heart. In setting
this commandment within the context of the basic structure of ethics, Israel
and then the Church declare that they consider it not just a matter of
community religious discipline but a defining and indelible expression
of our relationship with God, announced and expounded by biblical
revelation. This is the perspective within which Christians need to rediscover
this precept today. Although the precept may merge naturally with the human
need for rest, it is faith alone which gives access to its deeper meaning and
ensures that it will not become banal and trivialized.
the first place, therefore, Sunday is the day of rest because it is the day “blessed”
by God and “made holy” by him, set apart from the other days to be, among all
of them, “the Lord’s Day.”
order to grasp fully what the first of the biblical creation accounts means by
keeping the Sabbath “holy,” we need to consider the whole story, which shows
clearly how every reality, without exception, must be referred back to God.
Time and space belong to him. He is not the God of one day alone, but the God
of all the days of humanity.
if God “sanctifies” the seventh day with a special blessing and makes it “his
day” par excellence, this must be understood within the deep
dynamic of the dialogue of the Covenant, indeed the dialogue of “marriage.”
This is the dialogue of love which knows no interruption, yet is never
monotonous. In fact, it employs the different registers of love, from the
ordinary and indirect to those more intense, which the words of Scripture and
the witness of so many mystics do not hesitate to describe in imagery drawn
from the experience of married love.
human life, and therefore all human time, must become praise of the Creator and
thanksgiving to him. But man’s relationship with God also demands times
of explicit prayer, in which the relationship becomes an intense dialogue,
involving every dimension of the person. “The Lord’s Day” is the day of this
relationship par excellence when men and women raise their
song to God and become the voice of all creation.
This is precisely why it is also the day
of rest. Speaking vividly as it does of “renewal” and “detachment,” the
interruption of the often oppressive rhythm of work expresses the dependence of
man and the cosmos upon God. Everything belongs to God! The
Lord’s Day returns again and again to declare this principle within the weekly
reckoning of time. The “Sabbath” has therefore been interpreted evocatively as
a determining element in the kind of “sacred architecture” of time which marks
biblical revelation. It recalls that the universe and history belong to
God; and without a constant awareness of that truth, man cannot serve in
the world as co-worker of the Creator.
John Paul II served as Pope from 1978 to 2005.
He was canonized in 2014.
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