February 21, 2021
First Sunday of Lent
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Out of concern for public health, on March 17, 2020, I dispensed Catholics in the Diocese of Lake Charles from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Because Louisiana remains in modified Phase Two of the government directives and our church parishes work diligently to protect our parishioners with sanitary measures, I removed that dispensation effective November 29, 2020. In doing so, I made clear that those who are ill, immune deficient, symptomatic, in a state of anxiety over contracting illness, or at high risk due to a chronic condition are already dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass. Given the lengthy period of the dispensation and our return now to normative practice, I am issuing this pastoral letter as a reminder of the importance of worshipping our Creator as a Catholic Community, especially on Sundays and Holy Days.
We must first recognize that the sanctity of the Lord’s Day finds its origins in the work of God at the creation of the world. As we read in the Book of Genesis, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3). This “seventh day,” then, became for the Jews a holy day of rest to share with God His wonder and awe over the work of Creation and to worship the Creator Himself. By keeping holy “the seventh day,” we share in the work of God. Every good and honest work we do during the week is a share in God’s creating work. So then, we also follow God’s example of resting, and through our worship of Him, who is the origin of everything we are and have, we enter and share in His Life.
This reverence for the “seventh day” becomes even more emphatic when the Hebrews are freed from slavery at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. The Book of Deuteronomy expresses the day’s importance for them in this way: “For remember that you too were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, brought you from there with his strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why the Lord, your God, has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15-16). Therefore, in “the seventh day” we find themes of rest, freedom, creation, re-creation, deliverance, celebration, worship, and covenant. “The seventh day” is holy because God has made it so. The comment of our Lord Jesus Christ, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27), is even more understandable given this context. This holy day is indeed made for man because it calls men back to God, his Creator and Liberator. In Him we are freed from sin’s slavery, we rest from sharing in His work, we rejoice in His goodness and the beauty of His Creation, and, as Christians, we celebrate the fullness of His Revelation in Jesus Christ the Lord and the deliverance He won for us through His suffering, death, and resurrection.
Sunday is the Lord’s Day for us, as Christians, because on that day the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. From the earliest recorded history of Christian witness and life in the Sacred Scriptures, Christians gathered on Sunday to worship. The inspired author of the Acts of the Apostles writes, “On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread, Paul spoke to them because he was going to leave on the next day” (Acts 20:7). Repeating the very words of the Eucharistic institution (Matthew 26: 26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:24), “to break bread” referred clearly and simply to the Eucharist. It was this gathering of the first Christians that is described in the Acts of the Apostles, when it reads, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). From this moment onwards Sunday was the “Lord’s Day.” It is to this that some of our earliest Christian witnesses testify, such as St. Justin the Martyr. Writing in approximately the year 155 to the pagan emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 A.D.) to explain how Christians lived, St. Justin writes the following: “On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read….” and the one presiding “over the brethren… takes [bread and wine] and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks [in Greek eucharistian]…” after which the bread, over which “thanks” [eucharist] has been prayed, is distributed (St. Justin, Apologia 1, 65-67). And Sunday held pride of place in worship, not only as the first day of the week, but also the first day of creation, the new creation in God through Jesus Christ, a new life in Grace, the victory of Life over death in the Resurrection.
This, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is what we do in keeping holy the Lord’s Day. It is God’s Will that it be so. It is found in Sacred Scripture and our Sacred Tradition. The dress and language of those participating may have changed since the First Century, the accompanying gestures and customs may have adapted themselves over the centuries, but what we do today is what our forebearers in the faith did two thousand years ago. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians in describing the Eucharistic celebration, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (I Corinthians 11:23). What we, as Catholics, do on Sunday resonates from the Last Supper in the upper room, from Calvary and from the empty tomb, to the Sunday gatherings described in the Acts of the Apostles, to the “house churches” of the earliest persecuted Christians in Rome, down through the ancient basilicas and the Medieval cathedrals, to the simplest mission chapels in Africa, and to the parish churches in the Diocese of Lake Charles.
Should we be surprised that the teaching authority of the Church would enshrine in its law what we refer to as the “obligation” to attend Mass on Sundays and certain other days which celebrate the saving work of our Lord and God? Also, associated with this obligation is the requirement to refrain from unnecessary work. This rest from work is intimately connected to our worship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses the connection in this way: “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” (CCC, 2185). The Church has seen from Apostolic times that Sunday is a fulfillment of the Sabbath Day. What was and still remains a day of rest (cf. Exodus 20:8-10) for the Jews on the Sabbath, sharing in God’s rest from Creation, has become for Christians the Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection, a sharing in God’s new Creation in Jesus Christ.
In mentioning the new Creation, we immediately think of Adam who for St. Paul was “the first man” (I Corinthians 15:45). Now we have “the last Adam a life-giving spirit” (I Corinthians 15:45), who is Jesus Christ. “The first man was from the earth, earthly; the second man, from heaven. As was the earthly one, so also are the earthly, and as is the heavenly one, so also are the heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one” (I Corinthians 15:47-49). We rest, rejoice, and refresh ourselves with Him who rose from the dead on the first day of the week. We participate now in the new Adam. This is our dignity, and this dignity lies at the very heart of our Sunday observance. God calls us to holiness, and to put it simply, the Lord’s Day — Sunday — is to be kept holy.
No one can “do away” with or dispense from the Divine mandate to keep holy the Lord’s Day. How tragic would it be if a dispensation, however well-intended, became an occasion for complacency and indifference. We should always keep Sunday holy, refraining from unnecessary work, increasing our devotion and prayer, performing works of mercy, and joining each other at Sunday Mass. We return to our “obligation,” not with a sense of burden but with thanksgiving, rejoicing, and happily reuniting with our brothers and sisters around God’s altar, while respecting their health and well-being during this time of pandemic.
May we all rejoice one day at the worship of the Eternal God in the wedding feast of the Lamb, foreseen in the prophecy of St. John (cf. Revelation21) and anticipated in the most holy Eucharist (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26).
With prayers for your intentions, safety and health, I extend to you my blessings and remain
Sincerely yours in our Lord,
✠Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles