The Sunday obligation

Next Sunday I will find myself leading a prayer service, a so-called Liturgy of the Word, in place of the regular Mass for students at the cathedral. The reason is simple: our parish priest is unable to offer said Mass for us at that time, since he’ll be out of town. But because a decent number of people come to the cathedral for the student Mass, and since we, the committee that I am a part of, want to keep our momentum going, it is good to offer this prayer service instead of nothing at all. But people attending it will not be fulfilling their Sunday obligation. The Church asks them to attend a Mass at another time that same day, or on the evening before. Luckily there are four opportunities for that within the parish.

What’s the reason for this Sunday obligation? Many people feels unjustly forced to go to Church when they hear these words, but it’s not as unfair or pointless as many may think. Our faith in Jesus Christ also includes an obligation to follow His commandments, at the very least because of our gratitude for His sacrifice. Surely, a God who has sacrificed Himself for us, is worth some very minor discomfort on our part? Another reason why the Sunday is a day of obligation, a day when we are required to attend Mass, to be present at the sacrifice that Christ brought, is that it is good for us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (2181).

“Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (2182).

Our attendance at Sunday Mass is our way of showing that we have faith in something beyond ourselves: our being part of a community of faithful, and our fidelity to Christ and His Church. At the Last Supper, Christ asked His disciples to “do this in memory of me”. He asked the priests to always make the ultimate sacrifice present on the altars again, and His followers – us – to go out of their way to be present at that sacrifice, to let it shine into their hearts and through them into the world.

A prayer service of any kind is a worthy effort. Gathering for the Lord and taking time out to speak to Him, listen to Him and praise Him builds up our relationship with Him and our fellow believers. That is why I see no problem with an evening gathering on Sunday, where we listen to God’s words and pray to Him (we may even sing). But as human beings, as God’s creatures, we are not able to rise up to meet Him. Instead, He has taken the unprecedented step to come down to us. The importance of that can not be emphasised enough. Out of His love for us, He came down to us, to live among us and take our sins, our wrongdoings, our mistakes, our disbelief, our egotism and all the things we did wrong, wilfully or not, on his shoulders. He let Himself be killed for us, He died on the cross and rose again on the third day. He did for us what we could not do ourselves, because He loves us. He defeated death and opened Heaven for us. That act, that sacrifice, is made present anew in the Eucharist.

There is therefore a very real hierarchy of worship, so to speak. Prayer, praise and singing are all very good, but Mass, the actual presence of Christ, is better. It is the best we can ever hope for in this life.

Out of the same love and care that God the Father had when He sent His only begotten Son, the Church requires of us to be present at the Holy Eucharist on the Lord’s day.