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What are the Holy Days of Obligation?

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The Holy Days of Obligation are set times, according to the Roman Catholic Church, when the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. On the Holy Days of Obligation, Catholics are also supposed to avoid work or anything that keeps them from resting and worshiping God.

According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there are ten Holy Days of Obligation. In the United States, Catholics are required to observe six of those ten: the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God; the Ascension of our Lord; the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; All Saints Day; the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception; and Christmas. Sundays and the holy days that fall on Sundays (such as Easter) are governed by their own set of rules and are thus not considered an official part of the Holy Days of Obligation. Two of these days, Christmas and the Ascension of Jesus, correspond to events in the Bible; however, the others are based on tradition alone and may even contradict biblical teaching.

The idea for consecrated days, or days when worshipers are required to obey particular rites or traditions, comes from one of two places: the Mosaic Law or paganism. It is important to note that the New Testament never commands the observance of special days. This is not to say that observing a holiday is wrong or sinful, simply that holidays are not something believers are obligated to observe. The Holy Days of Obligation should not be obligated.

Paul points out that some people consider one day as more holy than another, and others do not. However, if a person believes a day to be holy, he should follow his conscience and be fully convinced in his own mind as to what he should do (Romans 14:5). Avoiding work on a Saturday or Sunday might fall into this category. Rest on the Sabbath was part of the Mosaic Law, which was fulfilled in Christ. He is now our Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:9). Therefore, resting from work on Saturday or Sunday is not an obligation. At the same time, if one wishes to rest from work on the weekend, there is nothing wrong with that.

The problem with the Holy Days of Obligation, as with so much of Catholic teaching, is that they are used as a means of receiving grace. In other words, grace must be earned via our works. The biblical teaching is that God’s grace is free—it is unmerited favor. In fact, any attempt to merit salvation destroys the idea of grace altogether: “If by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). Another problem is the days devoted to the veneration of Mary and the false doctrines that have been attached to her.

In Galatians 4:10–11, Paul expresses concern for the Galatians over their observance of days, months, seasons, and years. In context, we see that Paul is concerned about the Galatian church sliding into legalism after learning the freedom of Christ. He is frustrated in knowing that they are being trapped again by the idea of a works-based righteousness, and he reminds them passionately that salvation is by faith alone apart from the works of the law (Galatians 3:1–10). Apparently, the Galatians believed that observance of holy days was necessary for salvation—they were marking their calendars with their own “Holy Days of Obligation.”

Observing the Holy Days of Obligation cannot save a person. If the observance of any holy day becomes a work upon which one’s salvation hangs, that observance has become a stumbling block and should be forsaken. However, there is nothing wrong in observing holy days as long as God is honored, not man, and as long as the observance is a joyful reminder of God’s work or grace or blessings. A holiday should not be a burden or a religious requirement; instead, the celebration should flow naturally out of the believer’s praise and thankfulness toward God.

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What are the Holy Days of Obligation?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022