A reader writes:
I had a question about Holy days of obligation, and how they can be reconciled with what St. Paul says in Romans 14:5 and Galatians 4:10. I had a Protestant ask me this and I didn’t know what to say to him. He claims that since the observance of days is explicitly stated in scripture to be a matter of liberty of conscience, for the Church to bind people to worship on certain days under pain of sin is to contradict St. Paul.
I know Church teaching can’t contradict the Bible, but I’m kind of stumped here on how to answer this. Can you help me out here?
Rom 14:5 and Gal 4:10 are passing references to something Paul discusses most fully here (especially vv. 16-17):
See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2:8–23).
What Paul has in mind here are the ceremonial rites of the Old Covenant: circumcision, sabbath observances, various feasts and fasts, and a certain Pharisaic rigorism thought to make one better and more superior in holiness (and used as moral cudgels against the “spiritually inferior”). Paul’s point is that all of the Old Testament rites are simply prophetic foreshadows pointing to Christ who is the reality or “substance”. Cirmcumcision pointed to our need of circumcision of the heart. Food regulation and ritual impurity pointed to the impurity of sin which Christ takes away. “Don’t get hung up on the symbol when you have the Reality,” is Paul’s point. He is not saying, “The Church cannot declare certain days to be feasts or certain times to be set aside as sacred. Indeed, we find that St. John begins his Revelation by telling us “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10) (translation: I was at Mass. It was Sunday.”)
In short, for Catholics, time as well as matter and space, is sacramental. When the word became flesh he entered into time and sanctified it and so we have spaces in time (Sundays, holy days) just as we see space (for instance the space occupied by the body of Jesus Christ, or the space of a sanctuary) and matter (the body of Jesus, our own bodies, sacraments) that is made a means of grace. Paul is not interested in decreeing some arbitrary fetish against hallowing time, space and matter as sacramental. He is concerned that Christians not imagine that they earn salvation by mere rule-keeping of the rites of Moses. In a similar way, Jesus says not to make our prayer mere meaningless repetition… and then immediately prescribes for his disciples a prayer he commands them to repeat: the Our Father (which they have done millions of times in 2000 years). Is he contradicting himself? No. He is urging us to pray repetitively, but in an entirely different spirit of meaning*ful* repetition. Paul has no problem with liturgical prayer or hallowing time per se, nor did the early Church. That’s why they celebrated the Resurrection on the Lord’s Day and, using the power to bind and loose given to the apostles by Jesus, set aside certain times and seasons for feasting and fasting. But the point was not to earn brownie points by being more pious than the common herd. It was to enter into the grace of God that cannot be earned.