We can’t live without Sunday

The ubiquitous weekend culture weakened, if not killed, the sense of Sunday’s sacredness as the day of the Lord. Do Catholics still want and are able to celebrate the first (!) day of the week in accordance with the tenets of their faith?

A friend of mine living in Ireland told me about the ways in which young inhabitants of this country spend their weekends. “It is not that they hang out at the pubs and drink. They drink themselves into a stupor until they pass out. That’s exactly how it goes.” I admit that I did not want to believe that this was true. That is, until I read Young Skins, a collection of short stories by Colin Barrett about the lives of young Irishmen today. Let’s take a passage apropos of Sunday, pardon the language: “It is Sunday. The weekend, that three-day festival of attrition, is done. Sunday is the day of purgation and redress; of tenderised brain cases and see-sawing stomachs and hollow pledges to never, ever get that twisted again.” I used Ireland’s example because Poland tends to be compared with it due to the strong attachment to Catholicism and because of the recurring question about whether we will follow in their footsteps. The issue of losing awareness of Sunday’s religious meaning is part of a broader process of secularization. So far in Poland we need to note two worrying symptoms of the secularization of Sunday. The first is that for for several decades, attendance at Holy Mass on Sunday has been decreasing (recently dipping below 40% for the first time). This decline has been slow, but steady. The second symptom is the common habit of doing “Sunday shopping.”

In 1998 John Paul II wrote a letter about celebrating Sunday. In a few sentences he pointed to the worrisome signs, but most of all he recalled the religious significance of Sunday. He emphasized that “this day constitutes the very centre of Christian life.” Today this message seems even more relevant. Why is Sunday so important to us, Christians?

Holy laziness

Sunday is the holy day most of all because it commemorates Jesus’ resurrection. His first disciples were Jews who acted in accordance with the third commandment of the Decalogue: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Because of the resurrection they moved the holy day from Saturday (Sabbath) to Sunday. This did not mean a radical break from the Jewish faith and tradition. There is a continuity between the Old and the New Covenant. Sunday comes directly from Sabbath, but of course is made new by Christ. “Sunday worship fulfils the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people” (CCC, 2176).

Let’s note that the third commandment is on the first tablet of the Decalogue, which is to say that it is related directly to God. Celebrating Sunday is therefore most of all about God. Of course, it is also the day of rest for man. But the priority is to remind us that all our actions should point to God. Our work and our life is meant to be a prayer in honour of the Lord. Praising God, giving Him glory – this is the goal of our existence. In the six days of the hustle and bustle it is easy to forget about God. We are sucked into the daily grind. On Sunday I must stop and take a breath. Look at the sky, towards God, towards eternity. Look at the mundane reality from the necessary distance. I must “waste” some time for God. Otherwise I will only have a week-end, the end of the week, nothing more. Often a gulp of an intoxicant and the “end” – finish, void.

Why should we abstain from work on Sunday? This is harder to understand for modern man than the obligation to hear Mass. Let me repeat one more time that it is about God. Giving up all work on Sunday has a religious sense! It is also about rest, but not only. A description of creation in the Book of Genesis reads: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work” (Genesis 2:2). How to interpret the word “rested”? John Paul II explains that God’s rest is synonymous to the contemplation of His creation. And He sees that it is “very good.” It leads to joy. “It is thus a ‘contemplative look,’ which does not seek next creations, but allows the Creator to appreciate the beauty of what has been made.” Most of all, God looks at man, who is His greatest creation. He looks at him like a groom at his bride: with love; with the desire for intimacy, unity, and wedding. Sunday rest is meant to be such a selfless look at the world, at the week that has passed, at relatives, so as to see goodness and enjoy it. To love, to pray, to pay thanks, to adore, to miss heaven, to celebrate. You cannot be sad on a Sunday.

The third commandment begins with the word “remember.” We have a tendency to forget about fundamental matters. We still ask ourselves what we need to do, what we need to fix, how to control the world. Just like a plumber who sees Niagara and murmurs: “Plenty of water flowing down here, but I’ll try to deal with it.” Sunday is meant to make us re-embrace God and to remind each and every one of us of who we are; and to remind us that being is more important than having, that giving is more important than possessing, that sharing matters more than conquering, organizing or governing.

African “non possumus”

Every Sunday is little Easter, the day of Resurrection, “the sacrament of Passover” (St Augustine). The first Christians attached importance to the fact that Sunday is the first day of the week, or the first day of creation. They linked it with the truth about resurrection, which they saw as the beginning of the “new creation”, the beginning of a restored world saved by God. Hence, Sunday is not only about recalling that Jesus rose from the dead, but it directs us towards the future; it is a sign of hope for our resurrection; it heralds eternal rest.

All these threads come together during the Eucharist. This is why “the Sunday celebration of the Lord's Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church's life,” emphasizes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2177). In the first centuries, Holy Mass was celebrated only on Sunday. One of the strongest proofs of attachment to the Sunday Eucharist was given by the Martyrs of Abitinae (now Tunisia). In 304 AD, 49 Christians disobeyed the order of Emperor Diocletian. They gathered at a house of one of them to celebrate the Eucharist. They were all arrested and interrogated by the proconsul Anullinus in Carthage. When asked why they violated the Emperor’s order, they replied: “Sine dominico non possumus” (We can’t live without Sunday). “Without the Sunday Eucharist we would lack strength to strive against everyday difficulties and we would have to give in to them.” After horrible tortures they were murdered. Their martyrdom pricks the conscience of those who too easily make excuses for not going to Sunday Mass.

Sunday spirit

Only when faced with negligence and indifference was the Church compelled to preach about the duty to participate in the Sunday Holy Mass. That obligation is also regulated by a current provision of the Canon Law: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (Can. 1247). The Catechism adds that those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin (2181). The law of the Church also states that a person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass (Can. 1248).

A word of commentary. When I recently recalled on Gość Niedzielny that a Holy Mass on a Saturday evening is already part of Sunday in a liturgical sense, I received a few letters deploring that the Church is thus weakening the sense of Sunday celebration. This is not how it is. It is worth remembering that for many years there was no evening Mass, only Mass in the morning. Only in 1953 did Pope Pius XII allow the evening celebration. Saint John Paul II in a letter on Sunday notes that the so-called first Sunday vespers are celebrated on Saturday. He writes: “From a liturgical point of view, these vespers constitute the beginning of the holy day. As a result, the Holy Mass on Saturday, sometimes called ‘pre-holiday’, has in reality a truly holy character, and is celebrated according to Sunday liturgy.” Sunday Holy Mass on a Saturday evening by no means weakens the significance of Sunday. The celebration of Sunday begins on Saturday in the evening, just as Sabbath begins on Friday after dusk.

Today, the true challenge for Christians is to preserve the spirit of Sunday so that the Lord’s day does not lose its sacred character amid various weekend sport and entertainment distractions. There is nothing wrong in Sunday grilling, jogging in the forest or riding a bicycle. But if these forms of entertainment become a form of escapism, narcissistic focus on the self or a quasi-religious secular rite (and that is sometimes the case!), then they are the negation of celebration. Sunday is a time for God and a time for us. A sacred time. It is a temple built not in space, but in time. This is why the Christian is obliged to abandon all activities that stand in the way of worshipping God and disrupt the sacred character of the day of joy, calm and rest.

All right, but what are the costs of Sunday? As Robert Spaemann notes, if we ask that question we already denigrate Sunday. “Sunday is Sunday because it does not cost anything and from the economic point of view it does not amount to anything. For the very question of the price involved in keeping it as a day free from work implies that in our minds we have already turned Sunday into a working day,” underlines the German philosopher.

Fighting for the spirit of Sunday, we are fighting not only for our Christian identity in a neo-pagan world but also for genuine progress, for the soul of the world. A more humane world can be built only in  cooperation with God and not with Him consigned to oblivion.

Father Tomasz Jaklewicz

Source: Gość Niedzielny