In reading today's Gospel, we are reminded of the third Commandment; to keep holy the Lord's Day. And, it is obvious that the Pharisees had an exaggerated understanding of what was required by the Commandment. You will recall that the Pharisees were the descendants of the Machabees -- those Jews who were very zealous for the observance of the Mosaic Law. They didn't like our Lord very much, and here they felt that they could trap Him, and expose Him as someone who did not keep God's Law.
But, our Lord clearly demonstrates that the Pharisees were trying to understand the Sabbath from the wrong perspective, as a penalty placed on man. But, as our Lord says elsewhere, "Man wasn't made for the Sabbath, rather the Sabbath was made for man."
It is intended by God to be a day of rest -- a pause from the worldly activities of the week -- a day to refresh ourselves with God's goodness -- so to speak, to "recharge our spiritual batteries" so that we can face the world strong in our faith again on Monday morning.
Secondarily, it is a day when family and friends come together to enjoy each other's company and conversation in an unhurried way. A family dinner, a neighborhood softball game, a walk in the park -- these are all good things, because they bring us a bit closer together, and let us see each other as God sees us.
We are still bound by the Commandment to keep the Lord's day holy. For Christians, that day is Sunday -- changed by the early Church from the Jewish observance of Saturday, in order to commemorate our Lord's Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. And, perhaps, also the descent of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost Sunday. Sometimes we speak of Sunday as the "eighth day" of the week -- a special day on which we celebrate our redemption. We can say that, in a way, every Sunday is a renewal of Easter, a celebration of our Lord's victory over sin and death.
So, the most obvious thing for us to do on Sunday is to take part in Holy Mass. In fact we are bound to assist at Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, unless we have a compelling reason not to -- that means a reason which makes it impossible or extremely difficult to attend -- not just an "I feel like sleeping late" sort of reason. Without such a reason, missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is a serious sin, which must be confessed before we approach Holy Communion again. If you have a question about what constitutes a "compelling reason," ask your confessor.
But attendance at Mass is really the minimum. If possible, we should spend some extra time in prayer. We should make the effort to receive our Lord in Holy Communion -- and to have made a good Confession before doing so. That might mean spending a little time the day or so before, or coming early enough to Confess before Mass. Some churches also celebrate Vespers publicly on Sunday evenings, and conclude with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament -- certainly a good way to conclude your Sunday.
We are also commanded to avoid any unnecessary servile work on Sundays and Holy Days. Normally that means that we do not perform our normal occupation on Sundays -- but it also suggests that we ought to cut the grass and wash the car on Saturday rather than Sunday. I say "suggests" because that is the point our Lord is making in today's Gospel -- we have to make a good faith effort to determine for ourselves just what is "necessary" and what is not. The Sabbath is not an excuse for avoiding what is truly necessary -- if the "ass or the ox falls into the pit" we cannot put off doing what needs to be done.
I shouldn't have to say it, but, Sunday must not become an opportunity for getting in trouble. It is not a time for wild parties, or dangerous and boisterous amusements.
Sunday is, in short, the Lord's Day. We should be conscious of our obligation to observe it as such -- to seek what is wholesome and holy, and to avoid what is profane.
Yet, the Sabbath should never be thought of as a penalty. It is, without question, a day of refreshment and rejoicing. As the Psalmist says:
"This is the day that the Lord hath made;