Holy Days, Holidays, and “Obligations”

3 Jul

fourth of JulyI think many of us have already made plans for celebrating the Fourth of July tomorrow. And since it falls on a Thursday this year, many of us (thank you, Archbishop!) have a nice four-day weekend built into our summer not only to celebrate our “independence,” but to enjoy a welcome rest from our labor.

There are ten national “holidays”:

New Year’s Day (January 1)
Martin Luther King’s Birthday (third Monday in January)
Washington’s Birthday (often referred to as Presidents’ Day, third Monday in February)
Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
Independence Day (July 4)
Labor Day (first Monday in September)
Columbus Day (second Monday in October)
Veterans’ Day (November 11)
Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November)
Christmas (December 25)

Most people are off on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and the Friday after Thanksgiving, but those are not separate holidays per se.

In the Church, the greatest liturgical feasts are known as solemnities. Most solemnities are of such significance that the Church considers them “holy days of obligation.” What are the “holy days” (as opposed to holidays), and why are they obligatory?

Canon 1246 of the Code of Canon Law identifies them for us:

Ҥ1: Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.

“§2: However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.”

The Solemnity of St. Joseph (March 19) and the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul (last Saturday) are not holy days of obligation in the United States. The celebration of Epiphany has been transferred to the first Sunday after January 1, and Corpus Christi (the Body and Blood of Christ), which we magnificently celebrated last month, has been transferred to the second Sunday after Pentecost.

Further, in many areas of the country (including here in KCK), the Ascension has been transferred to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

All that leaves the following “holy days of obligation” (aside, of course, from Sundays):

January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Lastly, when January 1, August 15, or November 1 is a Saturday or Monday, there is no obligation. But what “obligation” are we talking about? 

Here we turn to canon 1247 (further expounded upon in Catechism, nos. 2180-88), which provides:

“On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

Let’s see. On those days we’re called to worship God, experience joy with family and friends, and rest from our labors. I don’t know about you, but that’s an “obligation” I can live with!

Imagine the outcry if most people were required to work on the Fourth of July. For those of us who are required to work, we expect double- or triple-time or some other benefit. After all, holidays are not something we give up easily.

Yet, do we have the same mindset when it comes to holy days? Are we aware of holy days? Can we do a better job of observing them?

The interesting point is that when we observe holy days we are not only giving glory to God, but we’re also doing something good for us. Our observance of holy days adds meaning and vigor to all the rest of our days.

What did Moses–the patron saint of union bosses, I suppose–initially ask of Pharaoh? More wages? Better retirement package? Universal health care coverage? While those are good things, that’s not what Moses said. Instead, he demanded that the people be free to observe a holy day:

“After that, Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they may celebrate a feast to me in the desert.’ . . .The king of Egypt answered them, ‘What do you mean, Moses and Aaron, by taking the people away from their work? Off to your labor! Look how numerous the people of the land are already,’ continued Pharaoh, ‘and yet you would give them rest from their labor!’” (Exodus 5:1,4-5)

I think sometimes, perhaps through our own workaholic tendencies, that we’re in Pharaoh’s camp on all this. We can’t relax, we can’t shut down our motors to focus on the things that matter most. Or we’ve filled up our weekends such that there’s little room for God. So what gets emphasized is the “obligation” part.

Therefore, I think we do well to stress the “holy day” part instead. Maybe we should speak of “holy days of celebration” rather than “holy days of obligation,” as we “work” for a good and loving God, not a hard-hearted Pharaoh.

So let’s celebrate tomorrow’s national holiday, but let’s also celebrate Sunday as the holy day it truly is! And may religious freedom ring!

2 Responses to “Holy Days, Holidays, and “Obligations””


  1. The Righteous Man | - March 19, 2013

    […] we celebrate the solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While it’s not a holy day of obligation in the United States, it is nonetheless one of the most popular feast days in the […]

  2. What is the Assumption? | - August 15, 2013

    […] of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s such a significant feast day that the Church considers it a holy day of obligation, on which we are obliged to go to Mass and, to the extent possible, enjoy a day a rest and […]

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