Give It A Rest: Reclaiming the Meaning of the Sabbath Day

By: Emily Stimpson


Once upon a time, in a land we call our own, the Lord’s Day was an occasion for great piety … and even greater gloom.  On Sundays, the people of Connecticut, circa 1781, were forbidden to run, dance, play cards, kiss their children or bake a minced meat pie.  Their neighbors to the north, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, attended church by order of the state. Wardens patrolled Boston’s streets, ensuring the law was obeyed.  Later, in the pioneer West, the child Laura Ingalls uttered the sentiments of many when she proclaimed: “I hate Sundays.” She recorded that proclamation decades later, in 1934’s “Little House in the Big Woods.”  For her, like for most American children who lived after the Mayflower and before moving pictures, Sunday was a day of shiny shoes, starched shirts, stiff backs and solemn Bible reading. It was a day when no fun was to be had.  Today, a century after Laura Ingalls denounced Sundays, plenty of Sunday fun can be had by children and grown-ups alike — that is, fun can be had for those not racing off to soccer practice, catching up on homework or heading into the office.

Gloom to Glee

Although the Lord’s Day in the 21st century has lost the Sabbatarian gloom heaped upon it by our Puritan forefathers, it’s also lost the Sabbatarian rest written into it by God the Father. For most Americans, it’s become more a day of shopping than solemnity, a day — almost, if not quite — like any other day.  According to Stephen Miller, author of “The Peculiar Life of Sundays” (Harvard, $28), part of the blame (and credit) for that goes to Catholics.  “The United States was 95 percent Protestant until 1850,” he said. “That Protestantism was heavily influenced by the strain of Calvinism that went through England and Scotland, a strain that mandated strict observance of the Sabbath. But as soon as large influxes of Catholics and Lutherans began arriving in the middle of the 19th century, that began to change.”  Those Catholics and Lutherans, Miller continued, favored the merrier Sundays of Continental Europe and didn’t take kindly to Protestant attempts to keep them from gathering in pubs and dance halls after church. Attempts to shut down New York City’s beer gardens on the Lord’s Day actually led to rioting in the city’s streets.  Finally, Miller explained, the Sabbatarians’ battle to keep Sunday holy in the strictest and gloomiest sense of the word was lost for good during World War II. With men overseas and women working in the factories five and half days a week, the only time left for shopping was Sunday. Some shops started keeping Sunday hours at that time, and more and more did so over the next two decades, as dual-income couples found themselves with the same dilemma as Rosy the Riveter.  “Now, Sunday is the second biggest commercial day of the week,” Miller said.

Much Needed Rest

Sunday’s transformation, of course, has its pluses.  “In Protestants’ very strict observance of Sunday, a lot of the joy of the day was lost,” said Kimberly Hahn, author of “Graced and Gifted: Biblical Wisdom for the Homemaker’s Heart” (Servant, $15). “Rather like the Pharisees, some took the idea of the Sabbath rest to the extreme.”  And indeed, the Sabbath rest on the Lord’s Day was never meant to be about gloom and doom. But it wasn’t meant to be about shopping ’til you drop either. The whole idea of a Sabbath rest, explained Hahn, originated in the Old Testament.  “The Sabbath was part of the pattern of creation described in Genesis 1 and 2,” she said. “God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.”  His resting, however, wasn’t a kicking back and watching the game kind of resting. It was actually a hallowing, a making holy kind of resting. God’s rest made the Sabbath sacred.  In the centuries before Christ, the Sabbath was celebrated by the Jewish people on Saturdays, the seventh day. Early converts from Judaism to Christianity, however, moved their celebration of the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day, gathering on Sundays, the day of Christ’s resurrection, to pray and celebrate the Eucharist.

Now, as then, she said, Christians need to observe some form of the Sabbath rest on Sundays because, “It’s one of the big 10” — the Ten Commandments, that is.  “We don’t just set aside the prohibition against adultery, and we shouldn’t set aside the Lord’s Day either,” she said.  Hahn also noted that we need the rest on the Lord’s Day because as human beings we are all “Sabbatarian creatures.”  “God didn’t make us to work seven days a week. We need a break. The Sabbath is stamped into our very beings,” she said.

Family Time

But what exactly does it mean to “keep the Sabbath holy”? How, in a globalized economy and a wired world, can Catholics make Sundays a day set apart? And can it be done without all the starched collars and glum faces of old?  “Of course it can,” said Father Edward Connolly, a pastor in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. “We’re not anti-fun. The Church is in favor of fun.”  Rather than give up their fun on Sundays, Father Connolly advises families to think about the true purpose of the day.  “Sundays remind us that we’re immortal beings — spirits with materials parts. We’re destined for the Great Sabbath — eternal rest in heaven — and Sundays prepare us for that.”  That preparation happens first and foremost through worship. In the Mass, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back, and men and women are invited to worship with the angels in time as they will one day in eternity.  Accordingly, when it comes to how we spend our Sundays, attending Mass is an absolute must for Catholics. (Missing Sunday Mass without good reason constitutes a serious sin.)  But, if all a family does is attend Mass together then go their separate ways, Father Connolly said they’re missing out on a precious part of what it means to keep the Lord’s Day.  “In heaven, besides getting to see God face-to-face, our greatest joy will be getting to know other people,” he explained. “So, we should spend our Sundays doing that now, investing in human relationships, caring for our fellow human beings.”  Rather than heading to the mall or watching television, Connolly urges families to “invest emotionally and intellectually in one another.”  “Play ball with your children, read to one another, go for a drive, be affectionate, just listen to one another,” he said.

Sabbath Feast

Hahn also stressed the importance of dialing back on outside activities on Sundays, forgoing sports practices and trips to the office, putting away schoolwork and “to-do lists,” and most important, bringing back the tradition of the Sunday feast.  Several years after converting to Catholicism, the Hahns abandoned their 20-year practice of eating cold cuts on paper plates after Church, and started pulling out the china, crystal and silver for an elaborate Sunday dinner.  “The Eucharist isn’t only a family meal, but it still is a family meal,” said Hahn. “There seemed something lackluster about participating in that marvelous feast, then coming home to ham and chips. We wanted what went on in our home to be more a reflection of what we experienced in Church.”  As for how Catholics trying to reclaim a bit of their lost Sabbath rest can ward off any creeping legalism that might leave children (or grown-ups, for that matter) sympathizing with Laura Ingalls’ contempt for Sundays, Hahn passed along a piece of wisdom from her own mother: “Play as much as you pray.”  Added Father Connolly: “If you want to mow the lawn, mow the lawn. If you want to wash the car, wash the car. But whatever you do, make it a family event. Confusing means with ends is where we get into trouble. If there’s laughter and joy and people coming together to relate to one another in healthy ways, almost anything can be a way of keeping the Sabbath holy.”

Even baking minced meat pies.

Credit to Emily Stimpson of

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