What Are Holy Days of Obligation?

Throughout the liturgical year, a Catholic will notice there are a few "Holy Days of Obligation." Typically when someone sees or hears that phrase they simply know, "I have to go to Mass on that day."

But why? Isn't going to Mass on Sunday enough?

Let's look at what "Holy Days of Obligation" are in order to find out why they are important for us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers this initial explanation:
"Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God's holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit"  (CCC 2182).
"Just as God 'rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,' human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord's Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives." (CCC 2184). 
"On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. " (CCC 2185).
Holy Days of Obligation are considered in the Catholic Church an "extension" of the Sabbath; a day devoted to prayer, rest and leisure. In Catholic countries it is often the case that Holy Days of Obligation are also "civil" holidays and businesses are closed on those days in observance of them. In our own country, Christmas is one of those "holy days" that is recognized both in the Church and by the state.

Holy Days of Obligation give us an opportunity to reflect on the mystery of Christ in a particular way, focusing on an aspect of our beliefs that is central to who we are as Christians. Christmas is probably the best example of how we are able to focus on a particular aspect of the Christian mystery and extend our "Sabbath rest" on that day.

The Church in the United States give us 8 Holy Days of Obligation, but often they are moved to the nearest Sunday to facilitate greater participation. Here they are:
  • Mary, Mother of God (always celebrated January 1, but if this occurs on a Saturday or a Monday there is no obligation to go to Mass)
  • Epiphany (this has been permanently translated to the first Sunday after January 1)
  • Ascension (this is celebrated on different days depending on which ecclesiastical province you live in; a few provinces celebrate it on the traditional date, which is the Thursday of the sixth week of Easter, but most provinces in the U.S. have transferred it to the seventh Sunday of Easter.)
  • The Body and Blood of Christ (this has been permanently translated to the second Sunday after Pentecost)
  • Assumption of Mary (always celebrated August 15, but if this occurs on a Saturday or a Monday there is no obligation to go to Mass)
  • All Saints (always celebrated November 1, but if this occurs on a Saturday or a Monday there is no obligation to go to Mass)
  • Immaculate Conception of Mary (always celebrated December 8)
  • Christmas (always celebrated December 25)
One can see the different aspects of the Christian mystery that are celebrated throughout the year and by celebrating them we are enriched in our understanding of our own salvation.

In the end, when we think of Holy Days of Obligation, let us remember that they are extensions of the Sabbath and are meant to be little islands of rest for body and soul in what can often be a strenuous work week. God knows us better than we know ourselves and so we should welcome these holy days as gifts from Him that are meant to refresh us and bring us life.

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