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The Holy Face of Jesus from the image of Veronica's veil
(The veil is kept in St. Peters Basilica, Rome.)

“Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.” — Exod. 20:8

On Sanctifying Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
*Reprinted with permission from Catholic Family News

We read in the book of Exodus that God made laws for the Jewish people through the ministration of Moses. It was on Mount Sinai, whither Moses had gone to implore Heaven’s blessing on the arms of His people, that God, in the midst of thunder and lightning, made His law known to him. It was there that Moses concluded this renowned covenant between the Lord and the people of Israel. This law, which in all things bears the stamp of God’s wisdom, we call the Ten Commandments.

With the exception of the third commandment, we have already considered the law as delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. By this third commandment we are commanded to keep holy the Sabbath day. It is well known to you, my brethren, that the Apostles fixed the Sabbath on the Sunday, or the first day of the week, to consecrate this day in a special manner.
They did this because of the great mysteries which took place on this day, particularly the glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the head and founder of our holy Church, and the Savior of all mankind.

It follows, then, that for us Christians it is a grave and holy duty to keep the Sunday, and the same duty holds good for the appointed holidays of obligation; and of this obligation I intend to treat in the first part of this sermon, and in the second part to consider how this obligation can be carried into effect.

Remember ...

In order to discover the origin of the seventh day’s rest, first we must look back to the creation of the world. Holy Scripture tells us that, when God drew the universe out of nothingness and created heaven and earth, He employed six days for this purpose, although it was possible for Him to have perfected all in one single instant, and when all was complete He rested on the seventh day. (Gen. 2) He not only rested but He blessed and sanctified that day. By this He desired to make known to man, His creature, and for whom He had created all things, that he also must sanctify the seventh day, and thus in a special manner acknowledge the greatness, the supreme power, and the goodness of his Creator, and of the Creator of the universe.

Through the sin of our first parent, this law became still more necessary. For then he was sentenced by God to labor, and by the sweat of his brow to eat his bread. Sin, moreover, has inflicted serious wounds upon his soul, so that he cannot attain his eternal salvation without great graces from God, and without an unceasing struggle. He must, then, after a labor of six days, give a day of rest to his exhausted body, and on that day pray to God in a particular manner for the necessary help and strength to enable him to conquer his spiritual enemies, and to obtain his inheritance, which is everlasting life.

Therefore, from the beginning of the world, one out of the seven days was set apart to praise God, to offer Him gifts and sacrifices, to meditate on His divine perfections and on His holy laws, and on which to turn the mind to the eternal and perfect rest, which ought to be the principal object of all our aspirations.

And, my brethren, wonderful to relate, the remembrance of this institution has been preserved, even among pagan nations. When we read their annals, we find that among the Egyptians and Greeks, in India and in China, one day out of the seven is specially dedicated to the observances of religion.

Nevertheless, this law was more expressly defined by God on Mount Sinai, where, as you have already seen, He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, the leader of the people of Israel. The third commandment is thus announced: “I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out
of the house of bondage ... Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labor, and shalt do all thy works. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: thou shalt do no work on it, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man. servant, nor thy maid servant, nor thy beast, nor the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made Heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them, and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”

Behold, my brethren, the law of God; and make a note here of the word remember. For this word shows that the sanctification of the seventh day, which is here prescribed, was already in practice, and that the covenant into which God here solemnly enters with His people was less a new law than a solemn renewal of a law already in existence, and which dates from the foundation of the world.

Sunday: From Apostolic Times

Now, the day of rest and of sanctification, the Sabbath, as I have explained, has been changed by the Apostles to the Sunday, and this observance has been adhered to till the present day. “And on the first day of the week,” — thus it is that St. Luke speaks in the Acts of the Apostles, — “When we were assembled to break bread.” (Acts 20:7) — That is, according to interpreters of Sacred Scripture, on a Sunday they had gathered together to offer up the holy Sacrifice, and to receive Holy Communion. In the first Epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle St. Paul writes: “On the first day of the week let every one of you put apart with himself, laying up what it shall well please him.” (16:2) These words show clearly that on that day the faithful assembled together, and on that day the Apostle also prescribed the gathering in of the alms for the poor.

St. Justin, martyr, who lived only a hundred years after Jesus Christ, says: “That on Sundays all the faithful assembled in the Church, and that selections from the Sacred Scriptures were read, followed by a sermon and general prayer, and that afterwards the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered, during which the faithful approached the Holy Table, and finally the collection was taken up for the poor, the widows and orphans, and for all the faithful who were in necessity. (Apoc. 1:12)

And to show their esteem and reverence for the Sunday, according to the testimony of St. Clement of Alexandria and other holy fathers, the early Christians were attired in white and costly garments, and their churches were beautifully decorated.

When, after an almost incessant persecution of more than three hundred years, the Church obtained the long-wished-for peace, the law of sanctifying the Sunday was several times renewed by the Popes and general councils; and even the civil authority prescribed its observance. The first monarch who made the Sunday Celebration a state law was the emperor Constantine the Great.

Theodosius the Great revived a former law, by virtue of which representations in theaters were forbidden, and severe punishments inflicted upon those who dared to disturb the divine solemnity. The emperor Charlemagne forbade, under heavy penalties, the holding of worldly meetings on Sundays, and the disturbing of the religious quiet of the Sunday by noisy games or plays.

These laws still exist, at least in part, in many Christian lands, especially in England and Holland, whose governments nevertheless are Protestant. (Note: This sermon was given in the first half of the 20th Century — ed.)

My brethren, let us remember that God’s law always remains the same. By God’s grace we are Christians, and must carefully observe this great law of the Lord. Formerly, Christians were persecuted and led to death because they kept the Sunday holy, and you know how at the end of the 19th Century in France and Belgium priests were cast into prison, and exiled for daring to practice our holy religion.

Then we saw a vast number of Catholics leaving their houses in secret by night to be able, in some house or shed, to hear the Mass of a hunted priest. These times are past, we dare to hope that they will never return. Should not we, then, my brethren, who now enjoy such perfect liberty, keep the Sunday as we ought?

God said to Moses: “He that shall profane it, shall be put to death; he that shall do any work in it, his soul shall perish out of the midst of his people.” (Exod. 31:14) “Watch over your souls,” He says by the Prophet Jeremias, “bear no burdens on the Sabbath day; let no one enter your city, nor depart from your house. If you do not listen to Me,“ says the Lord, “then I will set fire to your gates, it will destroy your palaces, and shall not be extinguished.“ (16) These threats were truly fulfilled, and when nearly a century later, Nehemias once more saw the people trading with strangers on the Lord’s Day, he exclaimed: “How darest thou allow such things! Was it not the profanation of the Lord’s Day which made our forefathers so guilty, and which drew down all the evils on this city which you yet behold?”

In like manner God has always chastised the world on account of the profanation of the Sunday, and He will continue to do so as long as the Christian world does not return to its observance. What has become of these barbarous people who for a hundred years held sway in France, and who, the more easily to root out the faith from all hearts, suppressed the Sunday? One dragged the other to the scaffold: all came to a miserable end.

Besides, experience has always taught, and will continue to teach, that Sunday’s work does not avail. God does not bless this labor: He curses it, and makes the profaner expiate his labor dearly, so by not respecting this law of God, a man not only runs the risk of losing his faith, but is also often brought to poverty.


So much for the obligation of keeping the Sunday holy: let us now see in what way we must sanctify it. The precept of sanctifying the Lord’s Day, my brethren, binds us to avoid certain things and to perform others. The Catechism lays this down very clearly. It states that we must abstain from all works forbidden on such days and give ourselves up to devotion.

First, then, we must abstain from all works prohibited on such days. These are all servile works, unless necessity obliges. Servile works include the labor of agriculture, of the building trades, sewing, washing of clothes and ironing, the carting of merchandise and such like. All these works are forbidden, and we make ourselves guilty of mortal sin if we spend a notable time at them. Should, under certain circumstances, needs of religion, or the commonwealth, or our neighbor, or our own personal wants require us to do servile work, we must in such case ask the necessary dispensation from our pastor, who is authorized to this effect, and from whom also we must seek advice in cases of doubt.

Then, again, selling and buying are prohibited. In certain cases of necessity this may be permitted to a certain extent, provided that it does not interfere with the services of God.
As regards other works, such as reading, writing, studying, teaching, music, painting, travelling even for pleasure, if we do not consume too much of our time over them, they are lawful. But we should not satisfy ourselves in hearing a short Mass, and then spending the rest of the day in such works.

You will never prosper by doing servile work on a Sunday. If you want Heaven’s blessing never work on Sundays. The words of Jesus Christ Himself should strengthen you regarding this: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (St. Math. 6:33)

Thus we see, my brethren, what things are forbidden on the Sunday. Let us now see what is prescribed on those days. We must hear Mass on Sundays and holidays of obligation, and to fail in this without good reason is a mortal sin. This obligation is binding on all who have attained the years of discretion, and this duty must be performed devoutly — that is, we must hear Mass from the beginning to the end, and that in an edifying manner. It is a sign of little faith to leave the church, without necessity, immediately after the blessing of the priest; and it is a sign of total want of faith to be in church without sentiments of devotion, without prayer book, or beads, just as if we were on the public road. The same applies to coming to church dressed in an unbecoming, disedifying way.

Alas! how shocking is the conduct of many Christians in this regard. They affect a behavior in church, which they would not permit in a respectable house in the presence of the master of it. Surely the God of all sanctity deserves every respect and reverence in His (holy) house!

To hear Mass devoutly, is, my brethren, the first obligation we have to observe on Sundays and holidays. But is this all? Many think they have satisfied the obligation of keeping the Sunday holy by hearing Mass, merely as though God had no more to exact on this day. Does the sanctification of the Lord’s Day consist in merely spending half an hour in piety? It is true, assistance at Mass alone is commanded under pain of mortal sin, — but it is also true that they who content themselves with this are constantly in the utmost danger of losing God’s grace, and at the same time their eternal salvation.

The laws of the Church oblige priests to preach on Sundays, and to instruct the Christian people, as well as to have church services in the afternoon or in the evening, such as vespers, Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. But if the faithful are free to come to them or not, it would seem to be futile to prescribe such laws to priests.

Although we may attend these different religious services in all public churches, nevertheless holy Church wishes that, on Sundays, we should assist at the parochial Mass. This Mass is said for the parish and for all parishioners, therefore it would be unseemly for a family to be unrepresented by any of its members.

Yes! Sunday is the Lord’s day. Many good Christians, thank God, understand this, and they are happy when the Sunday arrives, because they can satisfy their devotion by praying more, by visiting Jesus Christ in His Blessed Sacrament, by performing the Way of the Cross, by honoring Our Blessed Lady in the recitation of the Rosary, by attending Sodalities, Confraternities and Sunday Schools, or by performing other works of piety.

This, my brethren, is how you ought to keep Sunday. Perhaps you will say, “Must I spend the whole of Sunday in prayer? Is it not lawful for me to allow myself some recreation, some amusement?” Neither God nor the Church, my brethren, requires you to pray the whole of the Sunday, and it is perfectly lawful for you to allow yourselves some recreation on that day, after you have sanctified it by works of devotion. But do not forget that the recreation which you indulge in must be becoming, for, I ask you, would it be sanctifying the Lord’s Day, to give yourselves up to sinful pleasures? Would not, then, the day of the Lord be rather the day of the
devil? This, nevertheless, is the case with many who profane the Sunday, who, after having spent the work-days tolerably well, abandon themselves to drunkenness and all its sad consequences, to cursing and swearing, and to impurity. Oh, my brethren, may this never be your conduct! No, do not change the day of grace into a day of poison, the day of sanctification into a day of reprobation.

Respect Sunday

I will repeat in a few words what I have said regarding this important matter. To keep the day of the Lord or the seventh day is a strict obligation. God prescribes this law to us and the Holy Church appoints its observance upon the Sunday. Spiritual and temporal evils always have and always will be the consequence of the transgression of this law.

We keep the Sunday by abstaining on that day from all servile works, and by applying ourselves to the performing of acts of devotion, that is, by hearing Mass devoutly, by assisting at the divine services as far as possible, by hearing the word of God, by practicing other works of piety, and by guarding ourselves from all sin.

Always, then, respect the Sunday. Give to your body the rest which it needs, and when you feel tempted to do any forbidden work on Sundays, reflect that according to the declaration of God Himself it is better to have less with a quiet heart than much at the cost of your conscience.
Respect the Sunday, and spend it in devotion, and when in God’s house you are kneeling before His holy altar, He, from the height of Heaven, will bless you for time and for eternity. Every week you will obtain graces duly to fulfil your holy duties and to sanctify your labor and sufferings. The year then will be like a week, as the week is like the Sunday, your whole life will be spent in the practice of all virtues, by which you will make yourselves pleasing to God and to men; and when the gates of eternity shall open to you, you will enter this everlasting rest of which the Sunday’s rest is the image, and which God has prepared for and promised to His faithful servants.


(Taken from Sermons From the Flemish (out-of-print))