Celebration of Sunday

For Christians, the first day of the week, Sunday, took on enormous significance as a special day of celebration and commemoration. An ancient text from the Syriac Office of Antioch (VI. 193B) sums up Sunday in the following terms:

When we ponder, O Christ, the marvels accomplished on this day, the Sunday of your holy resurrection, we say: “Blessed is Sunday, for on it began creation… the world’s salvation … the renewal of the human race… On Sunday, heaven and earth rejoiced and the whole universe was filled with light. Blessed is Sunday, for on it were opened the gates of paradise so that Adam and all the exiles might enter it without fear.

Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the first day of the week and therefore, in the Christian week, Sunday was the day of celebration par excellence. From the perspective of ancient Christianity, Sunday was not a day of rest (like the Jewish Sabbath) but a day of celebration. However, it was the newly Christianized Roman Empire, in the 4th century, that proclaimed Sunday “the day of rest”.

Although in the course of Christian history some conceptual confusion resulted in the merging of the Old Testament Saturday (Sabbath) with the New Testament Sunday, it is clear that these two days communicate different realities. The Old Testament Sabbath (Saturday) commemorates rest. “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done and he rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2). This became the basis for the commandment that the human person should imitate God’s rest on the seventh day. “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord” (Exodus 31:15). Although the Sabbath has lost some of its importance for most Christians, the rest of the Sabbath day is linked to the rest of Jesus in the tomb at least during the Holy Week that precedes Easter. Crucified on a Friday and rising from the dead on Sunday, the Saturday is a day of no activity as Jesus remains in the tomb. The great fifth century theologian of the Latin tradition, StAugustine, ends his magnificent spiritual autobiography with a meditation of the Sabbath:

But the seventh day is without evening and the sun shall not set upon it, for you have sanctified it and willed that it shall last forever. Although your eternal repose was unbroken by the act of creation, nevertheless, after all your works were done and you had seen that they were very good, you rested on the seventh day. And in your Book we read this as a presage that when our work in this world is done, we too shall rest in you in the Sabbath of eternal life, though our works are very good only because you have given us the grace to perform them (Confessions, Book XIII, ch. 36).

Sunday then is not simply the Christian Sabbath but rather the first day of the week as is underlined in all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection:

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, cf. Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1).

Sunday is the day that a new creation begins as death is conquered through Jesus’ rising from the dead. On this day, activity to restore the world to creation harmony is initiated. Christians also commemorate this day as the eighth day, following the Sabbath, beginning a new creation, ushered in by Christ’s resurrection. The Christians called the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. This is already present in the New Testament (cf. Revelation 1:10). Sunday became a day of gathering, prayer and celebration in the earliest Christian communities. St Justin Martyr (originally from Nablus – Shechem) writes in the second century of Sunday:

We all gather on the day of the sun, for it is the first day (after the Jewish Sabbath, but also the first day) when God separated matter from darkness, made the world; and on this same day Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead (Apology I:67).

The ceremonious commemoration of Sunday was a change from the Jewish commemoration of the Sabbath. St Ignatius of Antioch formulates it thus:

Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the Sabbath but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death (To the Magnesian 9:1).

In the period of the early Church Fathers, Christians began to underline the differences between their young faith and the Jewish faith from which it had emerged. The tone of debate should not, however, hide the common heritage shared by Christianity and Judaism, rooted in the Old Testament.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public and regular worship “as a sign of his universal beneficence to all” (St. Thomas Aquinas). Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up the rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people” (n. 2176). Over time, the theology of the Sabbath was superimposed on the Christian celebration of Sunday, giving it more and more the aspect of a “day of rest”. In some of the Churches born out of the Reform in the 16th century, strict lawssimilar to the Old Testament laws of the Sabbath were applied to Sunday observance. At least one Christian sect, the Seventh Day Adventists, have reformulated the need for a commemoration of the Old Testament Sabbath as separate from the Sunday commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

In Christian communities, Sunday is the principal weekly occasion to celebrate the Lord’s meal, known by many Christian traditions as the Eucharist (derived from the Greek for “giving thanks”) or the Mass. Most Christian communities preserve some form of the Eucharistic meal although interpretations of what is being celebrated differ fromdenomination to denomination. Rooted in the Gospels and other texts of the New Testament, the Eucharist is linked to the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. Some of the Gospel writers understood this meal to have originally been a JewishPassover celebration (cf. Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7), celebrated by Jesus and the disciples on the day before his death. The celebration of a similar meal, following a command by Jesus to do so, is recorded in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in memory of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:23-26)

Some Christian communities do not celebrate this rite every Sunday but only once a month or even less regularly. However, the traditional churches – Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some of the Reform Churches – have priests whose main function is the celebration of the Eucharist.

Sunday is thus the day when most Christians give a formal expression to their Christian identity, going to Church and making it a day of celebration and rest from their various works. For most Christians there is no obligation to rest though and in the Holy Land where Christians live among Jews or Muslims Sunday is often a regular work day. Thus, the celebration of the Sunday liturgy is changed to Saturday evening in many communities.

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