Last week in the Catholic Church, we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is considered a holy day of obligation. As with Sunday Mass attendance, Catholics are required to attend Mass on these special holy days. Hence the term “obligation.”
For most people, obligations have a negative connotation. They conjure visits to unpleasant relatives, daily chores, and other less than enjoyable activities that we feel bound to perform. Think, for example, about the books you were required to read for school. For some reason, those were never as enjoyable as the ones you picked up yourself.
Yet there is a positive side to obligations. If I did not feel obligated to go to church every Sunday, I would probably rarely attend Mass. Yet going to Mass every Sunday meets a spiritual need, and I am grateful for the sense of inevitability entailed in the obligation.
Obligations bind us together as a society. We can expect certain behavior from others based upon accepted norms. It is natural to be self-centered and even selfish. Obligations force us to think of others and their needs. Imagine if parents did not feel obligated to feed, clothe, and show affection to their children.
At Christmas, our sense of obligation brings light to those in darkness. We visit family, give gifts, contribute to charities, and otherwise bind ourselves to our fellow human beings. In fact, the word “oblige” comes from the Latin “obligare,” meaning “bind toward.”
So this holiday season, when you wish others the obligatory “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” or “Happy Holidays,” remember that we are one human family bound together by good will.