Why Are There Holy Days of Obligation?

We just got back yesterday from our road trip to Colorado.  As we were planning our drive home, we made sure to work our day around Sunday Mass.  We knew if we wanted to get home by the late evening, we’d have to leave extra early to be able to make it on time.  We also realized that if we left early enough, we could make the 7:30 am Mass with Father Nathan Goebel at St. Joan of Arc’s parish in Arvada, CO. We were particularly excited to add this stop to our day because we’d just spent our whole road trip to Colorado laughing along with his podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know.  Joe and I really like Fr. Nathan for his sense of humor, and also because he has a way of making the faith and holiness feel approachable.

Though we made it to Mass on time, we got off to a rough start.  Not five minutes in, Lucy dropped her cup of juice everywhere on the floor around us, and proceeded to yell out “Juice, Juice!” for the first few minutes of Mass, as we scrambled to sop it all up off the floor.  We spent the remaining fifty-five minutes trying to hush her little worn out self in the hall, and missed participating in the Church for the better part of Mass.  As I kept my eyes low to the ground, I wondered whether or not any of the parishioners were mean-mugging us new people as we were trying to get our act together.  I wished I could make an announcement after Mass saying, “We’re really sorry.  We’re from out of town and running on five hours of sleep.”  (Though, we did end up meeting some parishioners after Mass, and they were awesome and very welcoming.)

At this point, though, you may be wondering why we even went through all the trouble.  Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to skip Mass since we were traveling?

ProbablyBut it wasn’t and will never be in the cards for us to miss Mass merely because it is inconvenient.  If there is a possibility that we can make it to Mass on Sunday—even if we have to go a little out of our way—we will be there.  Why?   Because as Catholics we are called to fulfill our obligation to attend Mass.  It’s the same reason why Father Nathan reminded everyone after Mass about Tuesday being a holy day of obligation.  He told the congregation that, since he was giving due warning, they better not come to him after the fact to tell him that they “didn’t know” or “forgot” to go to Mass to celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He jokingly said that if anyone were to do so in the confessional, he would give them five hundred rosaries to pray as their penance.    His announcement made everyone laugh, but more importantly called attention to the fact that we shouldn’t just skip out on a holy day due to voluntary ignorance. (After all, Catholics are bound to learn and know their faith.)  We should be aware of these days and treat them with the respect and holy reverence they deserve.

After Mass, we got to meet Father Nathan.  It was a real treat to see his curly-mullet-headed-self in person.

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Couldn’t resist sharing his pic, though the mullet is all the way to his shoulders right now.  

We talked a bit about the announcement he made, and he explained how frustrating it can be as a priest to continuously hear from the faithful that they just “didn’t know” that a holy day had occurred.  Really? He said.  I bet you can tell me the exact date of the next Denver Bronco game [Or Chiefs, if you live in Kansas City], who they play, and where they are playing.  You can remember that, but not a Holy Day?

Such a good point.

What is it with Holy Days that leaves even the most devout Catholics forgetful? I think part of it goes back to that word “obligation.”  It’s a word that has negative connotation to it, and one which puts a bit of a stigma on the real gift that we receive in the Mass.  There’s something about the word that makes everyone recoil and want to rebel.  Obligation?  Why am I obligated to do anything?  As Americans, we pride ourselves on free autonomy, where we get to decide what we are doing with our time at all times.  When someone gives us an obligation to do something, we resent it.  We resent the Church for telling us he must attend Church, we resent the day for the interruption, and we resent the fact that our “free time” is taken away from us.

I think even if somehow, somewhere, someone in authority directed us to take time off to fulfill an obligation to rest on a beach with a mimosa in hand, we’d find excuses against it.  We’d probably want to work and go about the busy routines of our days, rather than enjoy the vacation we always seem to long for.  It’s just the way things go because, more often than not, we don’t want to oblige anyone but ourselves—unless it’s convenient for us to do so.  We’d rather say, I’ll go on vacation when I decide. I’ll rest when I see fit.  I’ll do it, when it works for me.  Yet, we know that it would be absurd to reject a beach vacation simply because it is mandated.  Similarly, our call to fulfill our obligation to attend Mass and holy days throughout the year is something that we’d be foolish to reject!

Though the word “obligation” has a negative connotation to it, what it really means is that we have a duty towards God and our fellow man that we are called to fulfill.  What is that duty?  To carry out our commitment to God through the Church and Sacramental living.  Since the Eucharist is the foundation of all Christian practice, we have a duty to participate in it.  As the Catechism says, the celebration of Sunday Eucharist is “a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church.”  It is the way in which we give witness to others by our communion in faith and charity, testify to God’s holiness and mankind’s hope for salvation, and strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (CCC 2182)

The Church also calls us to attend Mass each Sunday in order to take a respite from the worries of our week. She summons us to put down our heavy loads, give due worship to the God who loves us, and to find joy in resting in the Lord!  Our obligation is not freedom “from” all the things that we busy our weeks with, but rather, freedom to relax both mind and body enough to fuel us for our journey!

Essentially, the Church directs us in this obligation because she loves us.  She knows that the strength we need to live joyful and happy lives, lies in our commitment to and love for God.  She is like a mother who pushes us to do things we don’t always want or remember to do, because she knows they are good for us.  She is keenly aware of the fact that we sometimes need a little nudging to remember to pray, to worship, and to partake in the sacraments—all vital elements of a joyful Christian life.

Special additional days of obligations are added, not to place more of a load on your burdens, but to lighten them by bringing you into the economy of the faith.  The holy days of obligation are high feasts which celebrate particular points of importance in the life of the Church.  As such, each holy day of obligation pulls us deeper into the mystery of God’s love for us and his plan for our salvation.

These holy days matter.  They draw us deeper into the reality that we have a God who has always fulfilled his duty in love towards us.  He promised he would never abandon us, and he has given us the Mass as a reminder and fulfillment of that love.  It’s our duty as faithful Christians to respond in loving adoration and thanksgiving to him, by assisting in the Mass with our prayer, worship, and sacrifices, and voices.

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The two holy days of obligation left in this liturgical year:

  • The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (this Tuesday, August 15th)
  • All Saints Day (Wednesday, November 1st).

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Also, the only proof I have that we met Father Nathan:

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I’m not sure he’d appreciate the image I captured of him that is quite stalker-esque, but I got chickeny when it came to asking him for a picture.  I didn’t have any Sour Patch Kids to bribe him with.

One thought on “Why Are There Holy Days of Obligation?

  1. Lauren,
    While I have not left comments (out of who knows what? i.e. busyness, etc…)on many of your posts, I want you to know that I enjoy them all and ALWAYS learn something truly beautiful. Thank you for your commitment to this outstanding ministry God has called you to.
    “Delightful food for everyone’s journey”
    In Christ,
    Kathy

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