Some of us who are older remember that Sundays were once quiet in downtown; in shopping areas, parking lots were empty. Most businesses were closed and few people had to work on Sundays. Surely there were exceptions, such as medical personnel, emergency workers, and those who ran essential services like power plants. But for most, Sunday was a day off. And although the biblical Sabbath was Saturday, in a largely Christian nation Sunday was the “Sabbath” day of rest.
In those days, Church was in the morning and then it was home to a family brunch or mid-afternoon meal. I remember back in the ’60s that after Mass our family returned home and we kids got out of our “Church clothes” to go and play—in the yard in warm months and in the basement on cold or inclement days. Mom and Dad announced the “parent hour,” making the living room off limits to us kids so they could sip coffee, read the paper, and catch up with each other. Dinner was at four or five in the afternoon; often our grandparents would join us or we went to their house. Evening featured Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (a nature show) followed by Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color/The Wonderful World of Disney. And then came The Lawrence Welk Show, which we hated but Mom and Dad liked (we went off to play again as soon as Disney was over).
It was the end of an era. By the mid 1970s many “Blue laws” or “Sunday laws,” which prohibited the sale of certain products or the conducting of certain types of business on Sundays were on their way out. To heck with family, we were off the shopping mall!
It is a loss. To be fair, most of us who are well off can still observe the Sabbath (Sunday) rest if we choose. However, the poor and younger people just entering the workforce usually have little choice as to whether or not they work on Sundays. And we who are well off ought not forget that as we tramp out to the malls and restaurants on Sundays. We have choices; but in exercising those choices, in our “worship” of convenient shopping and the pleasure of movies and restaurants, we create a climate in which others have to work.
Last week I was reading from a book written by (then) Cardinal Ratzinger, who reflected on the justice of the Sabbath rest. Prior to presenting an excerpt from the book, I remind you of the text of the Second Commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns (Ex 20:8-10).
Here is a brief excerpt of the remarks by Pope Emeritus Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger):
The Sabbath [among other things] is the day of God’s freedom and the day of man’s participation in God’s freedom. Reflecting on Israel’s liberation from slavery is central to the Sabbath theme, which is, however, much more than a commemoration. The Sabbath is not simply remembrance of what has passed, but an active exercise of freedom. This fundamental content is the reason why the Sabbath should be a day of rest to an equal degree for men and animals, for masters and servants … all the forms of subjugation that have been built up … come to an end … It is an anticipation of the society free from domination, a foretaste of the city to come. On the Sabbath there are no masters and no servants; there is only the freedom of the children of God, and creation’s release from anxiety (Quoted in Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, pp. 198-199).
This is a remarkable vision of justice that has been largely lost.
Almost no one I know links the Sabbath rest to justice. But as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, the Sabbath rest both bound and blessed everyone. No one could be compelled to work that day in the household of any Jew; master and servant were equal and free.
Here, then, is something to consider as we plan our Sundays. I do not write this in order to make lots of personal rules for you that the Church does not. But consider that the loss of the Sabbath rest happened not that long ago. And while the modern age perhaps requires more essential workers to be in place every day of the week than in the past, the honest truth is that most people who have to work on Sundays are required to do so for the mere convenience of others. If perchance you do go to a restaurant on a Sunday, why not consider leaving a much higher tip for the waitstaff? And if you absolutely must go to the store on Sunday, consider the need for greater esteem and charity for the poor and the young who are compelled to work for your convenience.
Perhaps the libertarians and economic conservatives will balk at my concerns for “justice” and tell me that many of the poor are glad to have any job at all, and that soon enough they will move up the ladder and have the choice to work on Sundays or not. I hear you.
But think about it; think about it a lot. There was a time not so long ago when we really thought that everyone deserved a day of rest together. Sunday was a day when most people could gather with their families (for what good is a day off on a Tuesday when no one else can rest and rejoice with you?). And we all made allowances for this; we respected the just needs of others for a day of joy, a day of family, a day of worship, a day of justice when everyone was equal in a real sense.
Not so long ago …