The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a beautiful solemnity in the Catholic Church, and here in Australia it is one of two holy days of obligation outside of Sundays (the other being Christmas). It is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the special place Mary has in God’s plan of salvation. Blessed among women, Mary the Mother of God was received, body and soul, into heaven.
But what does it mean to call something a day of obligation? And why does the Church prescribe them?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, holy days of obligation are to be treated the same as Sundays, which means more than just going to Mass.
Here’s what it says:
On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health. (§ 2185)
But what is the point of a Sunday? Other than being the fulfilment of the ancient Sabbath, a day when Christians come together to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord in public witness, it is a day of ‘grace and rest’.
The Catechism says that in the same way that God rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath was intended as a day of rest, a day to pause work as much as possible, worship God, pursue leisure and cultivate other aspects of our lives that we might have neglected.
What this means is that holy days of obligation are essentially edicts to rest more, to spend more time with family, at Mass and with our community and, where possible, to put a pause on work. The Catechism even encourages Christians to seek the recognition of holy days as legal holidays (§ 2188).
The purpose of a holy day of obligation, therefore, is not to burden us with more things to do; its purpose is precisely the opposite: to unburden us, freeing us from a lifestyle that is too busy and providing us with a chance to rest and give proper worship to God.
The Church, seeking to help us grow in the Christian life, has specified that Sundays, Christmas and other prescribed days are holy days of obligation (although outside of Sundays and Christmas, the specific days of obligation change from country to country). These are the days set aside to nurture and care for our spiritual lives.
Etymologically, the English word obligation stems from Old French and Latin words that refer to a binding pledge or commitment.
While the concept of obligation might at first appear a bit heavy-handed, it’s helpful to remember that an obligation is something that grows naturally out of the commitments we make. Like parents, whose commitment to having children means an obligation to care and provide for them, baptised Catholics, because of their commitment to Christ and the Church, have certain obligations that arise naturally from that. One of those is to come together for Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, and to keep those days as days of rest.
But the word obligation has another resonance. It can also suggest a kind of binding, like a bandage.
In the gospels, when Jesus is asked why he eats with tax collectors and sinners, he responds, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick’ (Luke 5:31). Christ presents himself as the divine healer, the divine physician who comes to heal our souls. In the same way that we have an obligation to seek healing from physical sickness (so far as is reasonable), the Church proposes these days of obligation as special opportunities for us to come together and seek the divine healer.
The point is to grow, over time, beyond a sense of mere obligation. When we’re sick, it’s not simply that we are obliged to seek help; it’s that we want to, because sickness is not good for us. Christ is the divine healer of our souls. We should go to him, not just out of a sense of obligation but also out of our deep need and desire.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023