Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is a fountain of Christ’s teaching for us in so many areas — faith, trust, mercy, forgiveness and accompaniment, just to name a few.
But Jesus’ declaration that the time is coming when “true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23) is compelling to me because it reminds us, above all, about our participation in the most perfect form of Christian worship. This Gospel passage offers us an opportunity to briefly reflect on our participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Sundays and the Christian duty that each of us has to offer praise to God on this day.
It is helpful to return to the Old Testament for perspective. Having instituted the Sabbath Day at the creation of the world, the Lord commanded the people of the Old Covenant to keep the day holy by resting from labor (see Ex 20:8-11). The chosen people rested in Him, on His day — the Lord’s Day — as a sign of the covenant He had made with them. This was a day to remember and praise the Lord for the many blessings He had given the Israelites, from creation through the exodus from slavery in Egypt.
When Jesus Christ — the long-awaited Messiah and God-incarnate, dwelling among us — rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples on Easter Sunday, the day after the Sabbath and the first day of the week, that became the day for His followers to mark the new beginning, the New Covenant formed by Christ’s victory over sin, darkness and death.
Keeping Sunday Holy
In his apostolic letter on keeping Sunday holy, Dies Domini, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us that Christ fulfilled the promises of the Old Covenant, and thus Jesus became the true place of rest, the true Sabbath. In time, and by the authority of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls for us that the followers of Christ began to celebrate the day of the Resurrection as the pre-eminent day while continuing to honor the moral and spiritual command of the Sabbath (see Nos. 1166-67).
In this way, Sunday distinguishes Christians from the world around us and is, as St. John Paul II described, an “indispensable” element of our Christian identity. In the words of St. Jerome, Sunday is “the day of Resurrection, the day of Christians, [it] is our day.” It is “our day” because it is when we participate in Jesus’ saving action, by celebrating and living His passion, resurrection and ascension.
How then do we participate in this work of Christ and offer God worship in the manner most pleasing to him? We do so by following the command of Our Lord who, on the night before He died, divinely instituted the holy Eucharist as a living memorial of His sacrifice and instructed those present to “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19).
When the priest, acting as Christ by virtue of his ordination, does as the Lord commanded, the once-for-all sacrifice on Calvary is made present and, as the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) makes clear, through our participation in it we are filled with “every grace and heavenly blessing.” This re-presentation, which we call the Mass, is the true and perfect means of worship established by Christ, given to the apostles and handed down to us today through their successors, the bishops, so that we can abide in Christ, and He in us (see Jn 6:56). The Mass is the only worship a Christian can offer that is truly worthy of God, because it is a participation in the Son’s worship of the Father, in the Holy Spirit. All other worship flows from this.
What does this require of us? Out of justice for all that He has given us we have the privilege and responsibility to worship our Creator “in spirit and truth.” Because there is no adequate way to give thanks and praise to the Father than by joining our worship to Christ’s, and because, as the Catechism eloquently summarizes, the sacraments — most especially the Eucharist — are the source of the grace we need for our salvation, the Church obliges us in conscience to participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice on Sundays and other holy days. The obligation is fulfilled by assisting at (attending) Mass offered any time after 4 p.m. on the preceding evening, or anytime on the Sunday or holy day. This also necessitates that we avoid any activities that would prevent the worship that is due to God or prevent the rest of mind and body that is proper to Sunday.
While being present at Mass always should be seen as a great privilege, the Church knows that in our human weakness we may be tempted to put other things before God. In light of this, the Church has established that Catholics who willfully miss Mass on a Sunday or holy day without being excused for a serious reason — such as illness, the care of infants or the sick, or obligatory work to support one’s family — commit a grave sin (see Catechism, No. 2181). By divine law, anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not receive the Body of the Lord without having previously been to sacramental confession. It should be noted that even though an individual may be in a situation which prevents them from worthily receiving the Eucharist, the obligation to attend Mass remains.
Despite the pressures which can make our Sunday obligation difficult, none of us should be deprived of what St. John Paul calls “the rich outpouring of grace which the celebration of the Lord’s Day brings” (Dies Domini, No. 30). It is important for us to understand that Sunday worship is not merely a matter of discipline, but an expression of our relationship with God, which is inscribed on the human heart (see Ex 20:8). While this relationship calls us to praise and thanksgiving at all times, it demands of us a special time of renewal and detachment when our prayers become explicit.
In today’s world, many who profess faith in Jesus reject the idea that formal, communal worship of God is necessary. They would offer that Sunday can be honored and God can be worshiped in nature, or in private prayer, or by reading Scripture from the comfort of one’s home.
In part, this is true: God can and should be given worship at all times and from all places. But we worship “in spirit and truth” most perfectly in the way that Christ handed on to us through the apostles. Further, we do not worship alone because we are not saved alone, but rather as members of the Body of Christ — the Church. We are one in Christ (see Gal 3:28), and we share at the one table so that we can strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This wonderful reality demands much of our pastors. Priests everywhere must ensure that the faithful, reverent and beautiful celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is and remains the central and most important activity of parishes and missions! Never must the Mass be treated casually or as anything less than the moment when heaven and earth meet. Every liturgy we celebrate must be given the very best we have to offer.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council remind us that everything in the life of the parish must be ordered to it, and all other important works should flow from it. In the liturgy, God’s grace is poured on us so that He can be glorified and we can be made holy. As an alter Christus, the Mass is a source of strength and constant renewal for priests as they bring God’s loving mercy to His holy people.
In the meantime, mothers and fathers must recognize that commitment to weekly participation at holy Mass, especially in our world today, is the most important thing they can do for their families. Parents must teach their children to understand and participate in Sunday Mass. By the example of parents, Mass should not be presented as a burden or something to be done before the fun can begin, but rather as a true source of joy and unity for the family. Flowing from the encounter with Christ as a family at Mass, Sundays should be used as an opportunity for true recreation to build up family relationships; perhaps this can be done by taking the opportunity to practice the works of mercy as a family.
The Spirit given to us by God enables us to worship Him appropriately. Sunday — the Lord’s Day and our day — is always a time when we celebrate the work of the Creator, remember our baptism, enter into the rest of God, renew our relationship with Him, profess our faith and offer back in sacrifice what God has given to us by celebrating the paschal mystery of Christ and receiving Him in the Eucharist that feeds us.
Most Rev. Joseph E. Strickland is bishop of Tyler, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @Bishopoftyler.