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SIDIC Periodical X - 1977/1
Sabbath and Sunday (Pages 08 - 12)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Christian Sunday
Adrien Nocent


Many Christians should read Rabbi Kahn's excellent article on the biblical theology of the Sabbath. Sometimes all we Christians remember about the Sabbath are its legal prescriptions, which often surprise us because we fail to realize their aim: to safeguard the whole dynamic of that day which transcends the synagogue service and respect for rest, and issues into contemplation of God, family prayer, understanding of the disinherited and of the suffering. I am afraid that what we often look upon as external legalism has changed sides; we have to admit that for most Christians Sunday is characterized above all by abstention from real work and by the obligation of attending the Eucharistic celebration. As far as can be seen, this celebration has no precise connection with Sunday itself.

It is not only Christians of a relative religious culture and hence with marginal knowledge of the implications of Sunday who sometimes wonder if it is really necessary to keep to it as a day of celebration, but also others who consider themselves more in touch with the world of today. Because the Church celebrates the Eucharist on week-days, though with less solemnity, they are considering the possibility of choosing some other day to celebrate the Lord. Here we face a problem analogous to that of the date of Easter, which is, for some people, secondary and of little importance.

We are, then, confronted with a double problem: historical how was Sunday constituted, and theological what is the (.< sacramental >, meaning of Sunday, that is, the meaning that actualizes the mystery it celebrates.1


How did Christians organize Sunday, and what did they intend to celebrate? Before answering this question it must be understood that when Christianity was developing there were three different ways of organizing the week.

In Greek culture the days of the week were named after the planets Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn, a usage retained in some European languages. Sunday took its name from the sun, and Monday from the moon. This planetary week became increasingly general though certainly never official. There was a popular belief in the influence of the planet of the day on man's conduct, a belief which in fact still persists. It has been remarked that because they kept the Sabbath Jews were thought to adore Saturn, just as Christians because they kept Sunday were thought to adore the sun. The spread of Christianity did not completely succeed in imposing the name Dominicalis dies; the Germanic languages still use the name of the planet: Sunday, Sonntag, Zondag.

I do not intend to talk about the Jewish week nor about the Sabbath which characterized Judaism from the beginning. I wish simply to recall the fact that when Christianity centered its celebration on Sunday, it did not re-name the other days of the week, nor did Judaism do this when it centered its celebration on the Sabbath. The Jews had Shabbat, then the first day, second day, third, fourth, fifth and sixth days. For Christians, Sunday (the first day) was followed by ferias two, three, four, five, six and sabbato. Notice that they kept the name sabbato for Saturday. I shall not discuss the development of the Sabbath. I wish only to recall the fact that its role became more important after the Babylonian exile. After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the synagogue service was substituted for the sacrifices. This synagogue service, which became increasingly important, gave the Jews of the Diaspora a deep feeling of belonging to a community. It was precisely because they were dispersed among pagans that they had to re-affirm their observance of the Sabbath. This observance was a protection and a visible witness to their fidelity and to the vitality of their membership in a community.


As we shall see, the theological problem is related at least partially to an historical problem, but it seems preferable to proceed without further delay to a theological examination of the points already noted.

Before touching on a theology of Sunday we must examine the attitude of Jesus with regard to the Sabbath and the reaction of the first Christian community.

Jesus' thought is not all that simple to analyse, and it must be remembered that it has many different shades of meaning. Here we can attempt only a short synthesis in which to present the chief elements; the synthetic presentation must not, however, add to them undue weight. What is certain is that Jesus never attacks the principle of Divine Law in relation to the Sabbath. It can he affirmed that when he criticizes merely external observance he is in line with the Sabbath law. We have been reminded in the preceding article of the conditions requisite for the interiorization of the Sabbath if it is to be authentic. Thus Jesus, by criticizing purely external observance, was in reality stressing the ideal of authenticity in its celebration.

The profound attitude of Jesus is expressed when he insistently affirms: The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). To see in this affirmation contempt for the Law and any intention of abolishing it would be to misinterpret Jesus' thought. He knew Scripture, hence the account in Genesis 2:3; he experienced the weekly interruption of labor, the halt that gives rhythm to man's work and at the same time stresses his true destiny: adoration of his God. In breaking the Sabbath, as he did on several occasions, Jesus was not innovating; his behavior has precedent in Judaism. When Mattathias renewed the attack on the Sabbath day itself (I Macc. 2:39-41), it was not from contempt of the law of rest, which was binding on the army as much as on everybody else (1 Macc. 9:43-47; 2 Macc. 8:26-28; 12:38). Precisely because he held the Sabbath and the Law in such high esteem he was certain that by putting the saving of the nation before literal observance of the precepts he was actingaccording to their spirit. Moreover the gospel itself mentions certain circumstances in which Sabbath observance may be infringed. We have just seen that Mattathias chose to save the nation by transgressing the letter of Sabbath observance. Jesus recalls that the Sabbath rest is subordinate to the good of humanity and he cites the prophet Hosea: I want mercy and not sacrifice >> (Matt. 12:7; Hos. 6:6). In what concerns cult and ritual the priests themselves sometimes have to do hard work on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:4-6), and circumcision is performed on that day (Jn. 7:23). Finally, certain customs are mentioned in the gospel, as for example watering beasts on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:9-12; Luke 13:12-16; 14:5).

In reality Jesus respects the Sabbath, but he understands how to appreciate the different ways of observing the sabbatical rest. There are serious philanthropic motives that modify this observance. For Jesus, as for all Jews, the most important duty of the Sabbath is to bless the Lord and to strive to sanctify the day. We must however go further when we examine the reactions of Jesus. In breaking the Sabbath, the solacing of human suffering was not his only motive, he had another: the affirmation of his messianic power. In what he does there is promise of the eternal Sabbath. e The Son of man is lord even of the sabbath (Mark 2:27-28).

After Jesus' life on earth was over, what was the reaction of the Christian community to the Sabbath? We have late evidence from outside the community. The historian Eusebius writes: They kept the Sabbath and observed the other practices like the Jews; but they celebrated Sunday in memory of the resurrection almost as we do. 2 This evidence then suggests a juxtaposition without conflict. St. Matthew's gospel which belongs to this Jewish-Christian milieu says, speaking of the end of time: Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. (Note that in the parallel text of St. Mark this reference to the Sabbath is missing [Matt. 24:20-21; Mark 13:18]).

However, this situation did not last and the first difficulties arose between Stephen and them hellenists ; they are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles: This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us >> (Acts 6:13-14). Although there is no evident opposition, St. Paul affirms the liberty of the Christian with regard to the Sabbath in the new communities founded by him (Gal. 4:8-11; Col. 2:6-17). However, even in the pagan-Christian church there are judaizing tendencies and a desire to observe the Sabbath as well as Sunday (Gal. 4:8-11). In early post-apostolic times there were groups of pagano-Christians who wanted to observe the Sabbath, as is proved by the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesians,3 yet the pagano-Christian church did not avoid polemics in its desire to defend its independence of the Sabbath! A critical study of the Constitutions apostolorum has made it possible to prove some Christian groups experienced a certain revival of the desire to observe the Sabbath. This document, written at the end of the fourth century and compiled in Syria, contains passages in which this tendency and its significance are very clearly mentioned. In the Sabbath both the burial of Christ and the link with creation can be discerned, while the Lord's day celebrates the resurrection2 However, it has been demonstrated that these passages are interpolations introduced into the text from the Didascalia apostolorum, a Syrian work of the third century which treats only of Sunday celebrations.


How was the Christian Sunday organized? It is here that the theological position of Sunday with regard to the Sabbath becomes clear. That the Christian liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic liturgy have their source in Jewish practice is so obvious that today we can still recognize traces of Jewish customs; but nevertheless it must be clearly affirmed that there is no connection between Sunday and the Sabbath. Sunday is in no way a Saturday transposed to Sunday. The theological orientation of Sunday is entirely different from that of the Sabbath. When Sunday is compared with the Sabbath at this period of the primitive Church it is solely for reasons of anti-Jewish polemic or to attack the Judeo-Christians. However, arguments in favor of celebrating Sunday to the exclusion of the Sabbath are not easy to find. Christ did not in fact say anything on this subject. The Epistle of Barnabas tries to find scripture texts to prove the superiority of Sunday over Saturday but without success.

Is it possible to explain the origin of the celebration of the Dominicalis dies in the first Christian community? It seems that this can be done, though all the elements are not as obvious as we would like them to be.

Some have tried to prove that the origin of the Sunday celebration was purely practical with no theological intention. The Christians assembled on Saturday evening after the synagogue service; but Saturday evening already belongs to the following day. When the resurrection of Christ on Sunday morning was stressed, the meeting was transferred to that time. Here there is no question of a thesis but of a pure hypothesis without any real foundation. In reality we possess only one text in favor of an evening celebration, but the evening is that of Sunday (Acts 20:6-11)." Onthe contrary, many of the arguments are in favor of choosing Sunday for the celebration. Jesus rose on Sunday morning. We have two accounts of his appearing on Sunday evening: first to the disciples of Emmaus (Luke 24:28-43), then to the apostle Thomas (John 20:19-20, 24, 26). Immediately after the apparition to the disciples of Emmaus he appeared to the apostles in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36). The apparition which was to confirm the faith of Thomas also took place on a Sunday, eight days afterwards (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:24.29). Allusions to the Eucharist are found in the accounts of Jesus' resurrection: bread, fish (Luke 24:30-35, 41-43; John 21:9-14). During the forty days after Easter Christ appeared to his disciples and ate with them (Acts 1:3ff.). From a letter of Pliny to Trajan, it seems that the Christians met on Sunday before sunrise to sing hymns to Christ as to a god; they then parted and met again to eat a simple meal together. These meetings took place on a statuto die, probably Sunday. 9

It cannot be doubted that the Christians intended to celebrate Sunday. The pagano-Christian communities give proof that they met on Sunday. St. Paul fixes Sunday, the first day of the week, for the Corinthians to make their collection for Jerusalem (1 Car. 16:2). In the Acts we find the Christians meeting on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20:7). The Apocalypse uses the expression c the Lord's day to designate the day on which John fell into an ecstasy. From the texts we have seen which describe the apparitions of Christ and his meals with his disciples, it seems obvious that the primitive churches celebrated Sunday.

The theology of their celebrations is immediately obvious; it has nothing to do with the Sabbath, being entirely christological and sacramental. In the texts referred to there is question neither of rest nor of Sabbath. All is recounted and lived with reference to the risen Christ. The Sunday celebration is clearly independent of that of the Sabbath and, at the time, had no theological link with it. Its aim was to celebrate Christ who rose on Sunday morning.

This celebration is also sacramental, that is to say, the actualization of a past event in the present for the future. Here the primitive Church is in syntony with Judaism in which celebration is also the actualization of a past event for the future. However, the object of this celebration is absolutely foreign to Judaism, since its aim is to actualize Christ's resurrection on Sunday, the day of the resurrection. Sunday thus acquires a very special quasi-sacramental value. This actualization of Christ's resurrection is also an anticipation of his return, a reaching towards the Parousia.

This is why the Christian Sunday is characterized by the re-enaction of the Last Supper, a re-enaction which is both an actualization of the mystery of Easter and a journey to the Last Day. Note the parallel between the expressions Kiriakon deipnon, the Lord's supper (1 Cor. 11:20), and Kiriake emera, the Day of the Lord (Rev. 1:10).

When St. Justin wrote his Apologia to Antoninus Pius in 150, the Sunday eucharistic celebration was held in the morning? There are some who think it possible that the eucharistic celebration was first held regularly in the evening as happened at least once at Troas (Acts 20:7); this could be hypothetically confirmed in the letter of Pliny to Trajan where a second Sunday gathering for the Eucharist is mentioned. The Christians abandoned meetings at this time after the interdiction imposed on them by Pliny.11

We have already stressed the fact that no mention of Sunday rest can be found in the texts. We know that neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a weekly free day until Constantine introduced the Sunday rest in 351. The Jews alone abstained from work on the Sabbath. Until the middle of the fourth century, the Christians were obliged to work every Sunday; but at the same time they kept firmly to their Sunday eucharistic celebration which was linked to the resurrection of the Lord. In spite of the difficulty of holding a celebration on a working day the Christians held absolutely to meeting on Sunday, and on Sunday only, in order to hear the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist. The Sunday rest was so entirely absent from Christian preoccupation that its introduction by Constantine presented the Church with a new pastoral problem: what were Christians to do on Sunday, because idleness can be harmful. True rest was therefore stressed, rest which consists in life lived according to God. Ephraem the Syrian writes somewhat crudely:

.. we stop cultivating our fields and interrupt our labor but we work ardently for our perdition by frequenting taverns and houses of ill repute. Work puts an end to the sinning indulged in during leisure. Do not therefore honor the day of rest with your body alone ... 12 St. Benedict of Nursia in the monastic rule writes: On the Lord's day all (the monks) will give time to reading except those who have been designated for special services. If a brother is so negligent and lazy that he will neither read nor meditate, or if he is incapable of these things, he will be given some kind of work so as not to be idle. 13

Rest was not, therefore, essential to the Christian Sunday; it was an accidental addition. Christians had to be progressively educated to living it, and the Fathers used the Old Testament for this purpose, thus contributing to the special symbolism given to Sunday. From this time Sabbath and Sunday, which hitherto had no profound link, began to be intimately associated, and the theology of the Sabbath as we have exposed it herefused with the theology peculiar to the Christian Sunday. Time, however, was needed to reach this point. The Didasealia apostolorum proposes a theology of Sunday supported by the Old Testament, but it is vigorously opposed to the weekly rest because it was not observed by the patriarchs and because God never rests. However, Sunday as the first day is the anniversary of the creation of the world." A sermon of Eusebius of Alexandria in the fifth century establishes the link between the first day of creation and the resurrection:

The holy day of the Lord is therefore a memorial of the Lord. It was called the Lord's day because it is lord of the other days. Before the Lord's passion it was not called the Lord's day but the first day. On that day the Lord truly established the basis of creation because on that day he gave the world the first fruits of his resurrection; on that day, as we have said, he commanded the sacred mysteries to be celebrated. For us therefore this particular day is the source of all benefits; it is the beginning of creation, of the resurrection, of the week. Since it has in itself three beginnings, this day bears an allusion to the most Holy Trinity.15

Christian hymnography of the Middle Ages was to include the following hymn in the Sunday office of Lauds; it is still used today:

Primo die quo Trinitas Beata mundurn condidit
Vel quo resurgens Conditor Nos morte victa liberat.

This juxtaposition of the first day as a memorial of the first creation and of the resurrection of Christ gave rise to another symbol, that of the eighth day. We already find this in the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 3:20) and also in JustinZ/ but it shows a strongly marked development from the fourth century. St. Basil in his De Spiritu Sancto gives his understanding of the ogdoad:

On the first day of the week we pray standing but we do not all know why. It is not only because "risen' with Christ and obliged to seek the things that are above, by standing for prayer on this day consecrated to the resurrection we call to mind the grace given to us; hut also because this day seems, as it were, the image of the world to come.18

The theme of the eighth day, even though this name was never officially used to designate Sunday, has had a very rich development. It has affected even architecture, since octagonal baptisteries were inspired by it through the first letter of Peter and through the eighth day, symbol of the life to come. This symbolic theology of the ogdoad should be developed but this is not the place to do it.

* * *

As a short resume of what has been said in this basic presentation we shall mention the following four points:

1. In both its sacramental usage and its euchology, Christianity depends more often than not on Judaism This is true both for the liturgy of the Word and for the liturgy of the Eucharist. The institution of the Sunday celebration is radically independent of Judaism and can in no way be connected with it. What is celebrated is Christ's resurrection on the first day of the week, because according to the evangelists and the apostles who witnessed his apparitions, he rose from the dead on that day.

2. The Sunday celebration has no link with the biblical theology of rest. This was an accidental association dating from 351 when Constantine ordained that Sunday should be a day of rest for all.

3. From that time a theology of rest according to the Bible and to Judaism was superimposed on the celebration of Sunday. The Sunday celebrated before all else the resurrection, through the Eucharist which itself is clearly connected with those apparitions of the risen Christ during which he ate with his disciples.

4. From the fourth century there begins a theology of Sunday as the first day, that of creation, and at the same time of the eighth day, that of the Parousia.

Fr. Adrien Nocent orb. is a professor at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of SantAnselmo, Rome. Among his books and articles is Celebrer Jesus-Christ, a seven-volume work on the liturgical year (Paris, 19751977), soon to be published in English by St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minn.
the Temple in A.D. 70, the synagogue service was substituted for the sacrifices. This synagogue service, which became increasingly important, gave the Jews of the Diaspora a deep feeling of belonging to a community. It was precisely because they were dispersed among pagans that they had to re-affirm their observance of the Sabbath. This observance was a protection and a visible witness to their fidelity and to the vitality of their membership in a community.


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