Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy

The third commandment, that we must keep holy the Sabbath day, is one of the trickiest ones for modern-day Catholic (and Christian) Americans to follow. Employers increasingly expect and demand that employees will work at least some hours over the weekends, Sundays not excepted; our sprawling landscape and distance between home and grocery store sometimes (especially when gas prices are high) make it difficult to avoid a quick stop for necessities on the way home from church--especially when church and store are close together, and home is twenty or thirty minutes by car away; and most restaurants, entertainment venues, and similar businesses remain open, expecting that at least some of us will spend at least some of our money on these activities before the close of the day on Sunday.

The Church is quite reasonable about what does and does not constitute violation of the Sunday observance. Necessary work such as that performed in hospitals, police and fire departments, and even hotels is seen as a reminder of Our Lord's words that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Works of charity are always proper to a Sunday, too, whether they involve caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, or simply ministering to our own families' physical needs for the day with meals and other works.

But it is unfortunate that in America, Sunday has blended into Saturday and simply gets called "the weekend." While large numbers of Americans do go to some form of church or worship service, equally large numbers treat the day as another business day. All Christians, Catholics included, find ourselves walking a fine line between meeting the demands of our secular, consumer-driven society, and insisting on some respect for Sunday as a day that should be set aside for worship, for family, for rest and recreation, and for charitable acts, not for business (and especially not for non-essential, unpaid work so often demanded by corporate employers on that day).

It wasn't all that long ago in America when most stores and businesses simply were not open on Sunday. Not every restaurant was, either, though some were to offer Sunday brunch or to meet the needs of travelers or or those who had to work in the fields mentioned above. By and large, Sunday just wasn't a day to do your shopping. People understood the concept of a rest from labor, and looked forward to Sunday as a break from the usual routine.

Once things changed, though, there hasn't been much of a push to go in the opposite direction (Chik-fil-A is a notable exception). The notion that giving up Sunday business meant giving up too much revenue became deeply ingrained in American companies, especially retail establishments. And now, with the economic crisis beginning to take its toll, some people are pushing to expand Sunday store hours even further, to make stores and businesses open the same hours on Sunday as they are the rest of the week.

Recognizing, perhaps, the reality that this particular genie is much harder to put back in the bottle than it was to take out, the European community is still fighting against Sunday shopping. Granted, many are more worried about losing Sunday as a secular holiday than in losing the religious significance of the day; some countries which fight hard against Sunday shopping have seen precipitous declines in the number of regular church-goers. Still, it's interesting to follow:

But over the past few years, Europe has faced a push from politicians to abandon the tradition to follow the American retail model. "Sunday is an extra day of growth," Mr. Sarkozy explained, when he announced his plan to overturn a 102-year-old law legally sanctioning Sunday rest. "It is extra purchasing power and other countries are doing it."

England took the lead in embracing the Sunday shopping culture in 1994, and was soon followed by Sweden and Spain. Once freed from communist dictatorships, countries like Hungary and Croatia joined the trend. In Roman Catholic Poland, Sunday shopping has become a national pastime. Now, with the issue dividing much of the Continent, the tide is shifting.

"American capitalism used to look great – you have lower corporate taxes, more freedom, it's easier to create your own business – but the recession has put a damper on it, and people are asking 'What is the point?' Has it made people richer?" asks Stephen Miller, author of "The Peculiar Life of Sundays." "Now, Europeans want to distinguish their capitalism from an American version they see as too frantic, too excessive. They want to protect their day off, they want to keep their social model."

Croatia had overturned bans on Sunday trading in 1994, but then slammed the door shut to Sunday shopping last month, when a new ban took effect. The change is seen as a concession to the Catholic Church. Major retailers have appealed, saying the change could lead to 7,000 jobs lost and score of store closures at a time when the Croatia can ill afford the blow.

I hope that Europe can succeed in retaining their Sunday laws. It's much harder to turn back the clock, and renew a sense that Sunday should be a day of rest, when the culture has decided that it no longer is.


LeeAnn said...

This commandment is always a tricky one to teach in first communion class. I do tell the kids they have an obligation to attend Mass every Sunday. And that we should rest as much as possible and refrain from working and shopping on that day. However, so little of it is in their power. I can only imagine the conversations that go on in some families. "But teacher said we're supposed to go to Mass today! Teacher said we're supposed to rest today!"

MommaLlama said...

LeeAnn, if the child is having to remind the parent... that is a sad situation! Unfortunately most parents aren't well versed in this matter and Sunday has become a catch-all sort of day!

Charlotte said...

Hobby Lobby is another store that stays closed on Sundays on account of the beliefs of its Christian CEO.

I don't think people realize that Europe is, generally, a store-closed continent on Sundays. Much to my dismay, both times I vacationed in Paris, it was near impossible to do anything, especially find a simple necessity that you might need or run out of as a traveler. In fact, I recall asking someone for help, and there was a "quick list" rundown of stores and entertainment venues that all Parisians had memorized and knew were open on Sundays. And let me tell you, that list was SHORT.

In reading this through, I felt conflicted. I was never taught in my 70s/80s catechism about acually "resting" on the Sabbath, only just going to church. I can understand the value in taking it a step further, and in fact, have asked my husband to cut-down the Sunday hours he works on his 2nd job that he works from home for the sake of the Sabbath. (A job, by the way, that is the difference between "just hanging on" and potential bankruptcy. I don't work, I stay home with our child. So he HAS to work some hours on Sunday.)

Still, who owns the definition to "rest" in our modern day? For some women, especially those who work outside the home, "rest" might consist of the peace-of-mind that comes with being able to vacuum or clean the house properly for her family when she otherwise has no time to do so. Ditto for shopping - "rest" might be the one time during the week when the family can enjoy being together at the mall or at Wal-Mart shopping for whatever it is they need.

I agree that many more stores are open on Sunday than are needed. And personally, on some issues, Europe has it right. But I'm not so sure that wishing for a Europe-style Sunday afternoon works in an American culture. The debate as to if both parents NEED to work and for how LONG they work is a debate for another time. But as long as this country runs according to a mostly 2-income family model, there is a need for stores, restaurants and entertainment to be open on Sundays.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post...fodder for a health policy study on effects of 'rest' for a day!

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Kimberly said...

I see that this topic was discussed a few months ago, but I wanted you to know how heartening it is to see that others are concerned about keeping the Sabbath holy.
I grew up in a home where Sundays were days set apart from the rest of the week. My husband and I have done the same thing. Besides worshipping God, it has been a day to shut out the world and concentrate on the only things we take with us when we leave this mortal exisitence: our character and our relationships.
God bless you and your family,