One of the most memorable experiences of my Sabbatical was the dinner I shared with an orthodox Jewish family on the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath for Jews is a very sacred time each week that belongs exclusively to God. It is meant to be different from the rest of the week. For God rested on the Seventh Day (Genesis) and made that day especially holy. The very meaning of the word “Sabbatical” is related to it. I took time out of my work here at Immac to do something different: to learn, to grow as a person and a Christian and then to return to my daily work at Immac refreshed and renewed which is what actually happened.
So during the middle part of my Sabbatical I stayed in Jerusalem and learned a lot about the Bible and about the great religions of the Middle East, including Judaism and Islam. So as a part of the program we went to a progressive, orthodox synagogue for their Friday night service welcoming the Sabbath at sunset. After the service, the program participants were separated and went in small groups to the homes of members of that congregation to experience a Sabbath supper with them. We walked since they could not drive on the Sabbath. I went with another participant from our program. She was a layperson, a nurse by profession, from New Zealand.
The family that we were assigned to was a fairly young family originally from England. The husband and father was a lawyer, now in Israel. They had four children, two of whom we met at the house and the other two were in the Israeli military and on deployment in one of the hot spots of Israel.
We had been briefed earlier by one of our Professors, who was Jewish, about what not to do while visiting. For example, when going to the bathroom, we were warned not to shut the light (the turning on and off of lights is considered work on the Sabbath).
As we entered the house we were escorted into the living room. While the wife and mother sat watching admiringly, her husband stood in the center of the room and the two children (about 14 & 10) came individually to the father for a blessing. The blessing was warm and wonderful, part of which was whispered so that only the child heard. Afterwards we sat at the table for the meal. Each of the courses was punctuated by the singing of songs in Hebrew, based on the Psalms. They were tuneful and had strong rhythms, which were punctuated by clapping and even thumping on the table. It seemed so alive!
The father at one point: “You see we worship God in our home and family as well as in our Synagogue.” He further explained that they do not watch TV or listen to the radio or even turn on any computer or smart phone during the Sabbath. No emails, no texts, etc. The family only worships God and uses the time to speak with each other. He called it: “a retreat day every week”. The Sabbath was a gift to them and they used it to grow in holiness and to grow closer as a family. Imagine that! Even Jesus, in addressing the excesses of Sabbath culture, said that the “Sabbath was made for Man.”
I bring up this example to show where we need to grow as Catholics. Are our homes ever a place of prayer? Or have we banished God to the Church building? We don’t even use Sacred Art in our homes as we use to. Statues and pictures of the Saints, the proverbial Bible displayed in a place of honor, all has gone away from our home decoration. It was a commonplace in some cultures for the Catholic family to get together each evening to pray the Rosary. I have not heard of that being done in many a year! And where is our Sunday observance gone? It used to be that the family got together after Mass and had a family dinner. Stores were closed so there was no shopping. People visited family, which remained the last vestige of our Sabbath.
But the ‘weekend’ has taken the place of the religious Sabbath. I don’t have to tell you that the weekend has very little to do with God. It is a break from work but just for the purpose of relaxation. Sometimes it is the opportunity for what we use to call ‘sin’: going away with a significant other for sexual pursuits. This is far from what we call a Sabbath.
But is it possible to regain the sacredness of that day? Can our religious culture lead us in the truly revolutionary transformation to make room for a “God Day” each week that involves more than going to Mass? Can homes become places of prayer again? These questions are difficult to answer. Will we abandon the age old distinction of what Sunday is as a day dedicated to God and substitute the ‘weekend’ concept which at best is relaxing and at worst a celebration of hedonism and the breaking of the moral law? Employers have often complained that Mondays are a waste for the company since the employees have got to use the time to recover from their weekends! Sunday as our Sabbath and the Lord’s Day must be recovered since its loss seriously compromises our faith as Catholics. But how?
In my estimation, the American Bishops failed to save our holy days. Most put them on a Sunday so that they were at least mentioned in Church. Our Diocese was in the minority who wanted to keep them. But they devised an almost incomprehensible system of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ holy days by their position vis a vis the almighty ‘weekend’! Nowhere did they suggest cultural habits that families can adopt to make the holy days real in the lives of the community or parish.
Saint John Paul II issued a document called “Dies Domini” (on the day of the Lord) which tried to address this whole issue. But, unfortunately, it lies unread and unheeded on the proverbial pile of Papal Documents that theologians refer to but have not real impact on the ordinary life of Catholics.
This important issue needs to be explored and a solution found. Otherwise the tidal wave of secularization will win a significant victory. If there is a will, there is a way.