The Theological Connection Between Sabbath and Sunday
The "Biblical" Support for Sunday Observance
The "Biblical" Support for Sunday Observance - Continued
Pope John Paul's Call for Sunday Legislation
In his Pastoral Letter Dies Domini, Pope John Paul devotes one of the five chapters (chapter 4) to emphasize the obligation of Sunday observance and the legislation needed to facilitate compliance with such obligation. The Popeís call for civil legislation to facilitate Sunday observance stems from three major considerations which we need to briefly consider:
(1) The moral obligation of Sunday observance
(2) The ecclesiastical enforcement of Sunday observance
(3) The call for civil Sunday legislation
(1) The Moral Obligation of Sunday Observance
For the Pope, Sunday observance is not an option but a moral obligation which is well-defined both in the Catholic Catechism and the Catholic Canon Law. We have seen that John Paul roots such an obligation in the Sabbath commandment itself, because he believes that Sunday is "inscribed" in the Decalogue and is the fulfillment and full expression of the Sabbath. This means that Sunday must be observed according to the directives of the Sabbath commandment.
John Paul writes: "It is the duty of Christians, therefore, to remember that, although the practices of the Jewish Sabbath are gone, surpassed as they are by the Ďfulfillmentí which Sunday brings, the underlying reasons for keeping Ďthe Lordís Dayí holyóinscribed solemnly in the Ten Commandmentsóremain valid, though they need to be reinterpreted in the light of the theology and spirituality of Sunday."71 The Pope continues quoting the Deuteronomic version of the Sabbath commandment (Deut 5:12-15).
The moral obligation to observe Sunday for the Pope is "inscribed solemnly in the Ten Commandments" because, "more than a Ďreplacementí of the Sabbath, Sunday is its fulfillment, and in a certain sense its extension and full expression in the ordered unfolding of the history of salvation."72 "From this perspective," John Paul continues, "the biblical theology of the ĎSabbathí can be recovered in full, without compromising the Christian character of Sunday."73
The three major theological meanings of Sunday which I found in the writings of the Fathers areas follows: (1) the commemoration of the anniversary of creation, especially the creation of light on the first day which was suggested by its analogy to the Day of the Sun; (2) the commemoration of Christís Resurrection which eventually emerged as the fundamental reason for Sundaykeeping; and (3) the cosmic and eschatological speculations about the significance of the eighth day. An extensive discussion of these theological reasons is found in chapter 9 of my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday.
Speculations about the eighth day abound in the Patristic literature because they served to prove the superiority of Sundayóas the eighth day, symbol of the eternal worldóin contrast to the Sabbath,óas the seventh day, symbol of the terrestrial millennium. These speculations were repudiated in the fourth century when the necessity to prove the superiority of Sunday over the Sabbath subsided.74
A careful study of early Christian literature suggests that Sunday arose, not as "the extension" of the Sabbath, but as its replacement. The necessity which arose to separate from the Jews and their Sabbath influenced Gentile Christians to adopt the venerable day of the Sun, since it provided an adequate time and symbolism to commemorate significant divine events which occurred on that day, such as the creation of light and the Resurrection of the Sun of Justice.
The adoption of the Day of the Sun provoked a controversy with those who maintained the continuity and inviolability of the Sabbath. To silence such opposition, the symbolism of the first and eighth day were introduced and widely used by the Fathers, since they provided seemingly valuable apologetic arguments to defend the superiority of Sunday. As the first day, Sunday could allegedly claim superiority over the Sabbath, since it celebrated the anniversary of both the first and the second creation which was inaugurated by Christís Resurrection. The seventh day, on the other hand, could only claim to commemorate the completion of creation. As the eighth day, Sunday could claim to be the alleged continuation, and supplantation of the Sabbath, both temporally and eschatologically.75
The polemic nature of the theological arguments developed by the Fathers to justify Sunday observance do not support the claim of the Pastoral Letter that Sunday was seen by the primitive Church as "the extension and full expression" of the Sabbath. The historical reality is that the Fathers emphasized the distinction between Sabbath and Sunday by making the Sabbath a Jewish institution terminated by Christ.
In the light of these considerations, the Popeís attempt to ground the moral obligation of Sunday observance on the Sabbath commandment must be viewed as a well-meaning but misinformed endeavor, because theologically, historically, and existentially, Sunday has never been the Sabbath.
(2) The Ecclesiastical Enforcement of Sunday Observance
In his Pastoral Letter, Pope John Paul emphasizes not only the moral obligation of Sunday observance, but also the responsibility of the Catholic Church to ensure that her members respect such an obligation. This concept is foreign to most Protestants who view going to church on Sunday as a good practice, but not as a church law. Protestant churches do not condemn the failure to attend Sunday services as a serious sin. By contrast, the Catholic Church views the deliberate failure to attend Sunday Mass as a grave sin.
It is important to understand the Catholic view of the obligatory nature of attending Sunday Mass in order to comprehend why the Catholic Church enforces such practice within the church by means of Canon Law, and why it also urges civil governments to pass civil Sunday legislation that respects the duty of Catholics to fulfill their worship obligations. The connection between the two is discussed below.
Historically, enforcement of Sunday worship within the Catholic Church began in the fourth century. The protection provided by the Constantinian Sunday Law (A. D. 321) tempted many Christians to become negligent about attending Sunday Mass.
To remedy this problem, as John Paul explains, "The Church had to make explicit the duty to attend Sunday Mass: more often than not, this was done in the form of exhortation, but at times the Church had to resort to specific canonical precepts. This was the case in a number of local Councils from the fourth century onwards (as at the Council of Elvira of 300, which speaks not of an obligation but of penalties after three absences) and most especially from the sixth century onwards (as at the Council of Agde in 506). These decrees of local Councils led to a universal practice, the obligatory character of which was taken as something quite normal."76
The obligation to attend Sunday Mass was eventually made "into a universal law" in 1917. Such law was incorporated into the Catholic "Canon Law," that is, the law that governs the Catholic religious life. The Pope notes that "this legislation has normally been understood as entailing a grave obligation: this is the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and it is easy to understand why if we keep in mind how vital Sunday is for the Christian life."77
Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is most emphatic about the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, saying that "the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass."78 While Protestant churches encourage their members to attend Sunday services, the Catholic Church obliges their members to attend Sunday Mass. The reason is that for Catholics "The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation . . . . Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin."79
John Paul explains that "because the faithful are obliged to attend Mass unless there is a grave impediment, Pastors have the corresponding duty to offer to everyone the real possibility of fulfilling the [Mass] precept."80 To meet this need, Catholic Church law has made provision for the celebration of several Masses on Sunday as well as special Masses on Saturday evening for those who cannot make it to church on Sunday.81
Is the Lordís Supper a Sacrifice?
Pope John Paul clearly states: "The Mass in fact truly makes present the sacrifice of the Cross. Under the species of the bread and wine, . . . Christ offers himself to the Father in the same act of sacrifice by which He offered Himself on the Cross."82 This dogmatic teaching is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice. The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of the offering is different. In the divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner."83
It is this view of the Mass as a reenactment of Christís atoning sacrifice before God and on behalf of the faithful that makes attendance to the Sunday Mass "a grave obligation." By participating in the Mass, Catholics are promised the immediate benefits of Christís sacrifice which is reenacted on their behalf before their eyes.84
Sacrifices and the Sabbath Commandment.
Pope John Paul and the Catholic dogma ignore that the essence of the Sabbath commandment is not participating in a sacrificial liturgy but is consecrating the Sabbath time to God. The Sabbath commandment invites us to offer to God not sacrifices, but our time, which for many is the most precious commodity to sacrifice. By giving priority to God in our thinking and living on the Sabbath, we show in a tangible way that God really counts in our lives.
Jesus or His followers did not go to the Temple on the Sabbath to watch the priestly sacrificial liturgy. Instead, they went to the synagogue to participate in the study of Scripture, to pray, and to sing praises to God.
By making the Eucharistic (Lordís Supper) celebration the core of Sunday observance, the Catholic Church has facilitated the secularization of Sunday. The reason is that many sincere Catholics believe that once they have fulfilled "the Mass precept," they are free to spend the rest of their Sunday time as they wish. For the Pope to reverse this trend at this time is a monumental task, especially since people today want holidays rather than Holy Days.
The Nature and Time of the Lordís Supper.
Paul understood the Lordís Supper to be a "proclamation," not a reenactment of Christís death. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lordís death until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26). The verb "proclaimókatangellein" is used in the New Testament for heralding the Gospel (1 Cor 9:14) and for making known oneís faith (Rom 1:8). This suggests that the celebration of the Lordís Supper is a proclamation of the Gospel directed manward, not a reenactment of Christís sacrifice directed Godward, as taught by the Catholic church.
The Popeís contention that "the Eucharist is the heart of Sunday"85 cannot be supported by the witness of the New Testament. Paul, who claims to transmit what he "received from the Lord" (1 Cor 11:23) regarding the Lordís Supper, nowhere suggests that it should be celebrated on Sunday as the core of the Sunday worship. The Apostle takes pains to instruct the Corinthians concerning the manner of celebrating the Lordís Supper, but on the question of the time of the assembly no less than four times he repeats in the same chapter, "when you come togetherósunerkomenon" (1 Cor 11:18, 20, 33, 34), thus implying indeterminate times and days.
If the Lordís Supper was indeed celebrated on Sunday, Paul could hardly have failed to mention it at least once, since four times he refers to the coming together for its celebration. Furthermore, if Sunday was already regarded as the "Lordís day," Paul could have strengthened his plea for a more worshipful attitude during the partaking of the Lordís Supper by reminding the Corinthians of the sacred nature of the Lordís Day in which they met. But, though Paul was familiar with the adjective "Lordísókuriakos" (since he uses it in v. 20 to designate the nature of the supper), he did not apply it to Sunday, which in the same epistle he calls by the Jewish designation "first day of the week" (1 Cor 16:2).
The preceding observations have served to highlight three major flaws in the arguments of the Pastoral Letter regarding the enforcement of Sunday worship. First, John Paul wants to ground Sunday observance in the Sabbath commandment in spite of the fact that the essence of Sabbathkeeping is not participation in sacrificial rituals but the consecration of time to God.
Second, John Paul contends that the Eucharistic (Lordís Supper) celebration is the heart of Sunday worship in spite of the fact that the Lordís Supper was not associated with Sunday or Sabbath worship in the Apostolic Church.
Third, John Paul maintains that the Lordís Supper is a sacrifice in which Christ offers Himself anew to the Father on behalf of the faithful in spite of the fact that the New Testament describes it as a "proclamation," not a reenactment of Christís death.
What this means is that the authority of the Catholic Church to enforce the obligation to attend Sunday Mass derives not from biblical precepts or examples but from ecclesiastical traditions. The questionable and inconsistent nature of church traditions hardly provides compelling moral reasons for persuading Christians today to observe Sunday as the biblical Holy Sabbath Day.
(3) The Call for Civil Sunday Legislation
In his Pastoral Letter, Pope John Paul calls upon Christians to "strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy."86 Such a call stems from the belief that participation in the Sunday Mass is not an option, but a grave obligation that can only be freely fulfilled if the State guarantees to all the right to rest on Sunday.
Importance of Civil Sunday Legislation.
The Constantinian Sunday Law changed the situation dramatically. As the Pope points out, "Christians rejoiced to see thus removed the obstacles which until then had sometimes made the observance of the Lordís Day heroic."89 What Constantine did in making Sunday a legal holiday for the empire was not "a mere historical circumstance with no special significance for the church," but a providential intervention that made it possible for Christians to observe Sunday "without hindrance."90
To highlight the importance of civil legislation that guarantees Sunday rest, the Pope points to the fact that "even after the fall of the Empire, the Councils did not cease to insist upon arrangements [civil legislation] regarding Sunday rest."91 In the light of the fact that in the past most countries have maintained Sunday laws to permit Christians to observe Sunday, the Pope call for civil legislation that respects the Christian "duty to keep Sunday holy."92
To emphasize the need for civil legislation that guarantees Sunday rest, the Pope points to the Encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) where Pope Leo XII speaks of "Sunday rest as a workerís right which the State must guarantee."93 The Pontiff notes that Sunday legislation is especially needed today, in view of the physical, social, and ecological problems created by technological and industrial advancements. "Therefore," the Pope concludes, "in the particular circumstances of our time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy."94
The same view is explicitly expressed in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church: "In spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. . . . In respecting religious liberty and the common good of all, Christians should seek recognition of Sunday and the Churchís holy days as legal holidays."95 It is evident that the Catholic Church is committed to ensure that civil legislation protects their rights to observe Sunday and the holy days.
The Constitutionality of Sunday Laws.
By emphasizing the human and "secular" benefits and values of Sunday Laws, John Paul knows that he can gain greater international acceptance for such legislation. It is worth noting in this regard the U. S. Supreme Court decision in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U. S. 420 (1961) that upheld Marylandís Sunday Closing Laws as not violative of the Federal Constitution. The reason the Court justified the stateís interest in protecting a common day of Sunday rest is that Sunday has become secularized in the American society. The Court said: "We believe that the air of the day is one of relaxation rather than religion."97
The recognition of this reality leads Attorney Michael Woodruff to write as follows in Sunday magazine of the Lordís Day Alliance: "If we must justify the retention of the Lordís Day as a secular day of rest, we must find compelling secular grounds to make it so. . . . If Courts view Sunday laws as having the direct effect of Ďadvancing religion,í then under current First Amendment doctrine, such laws must be unconstitutional. However, if the laws are generally applicable and have a religion-neutral purpose, then the effect is likely to be seen incidental. To this end, the distinction between religious practice and the form of laws is important."98
The Pope is well aware of the need to maintain this distinction. Thus in his Pastoral Letter, he appeals to the social and human values that Sunday Laws guarantee and promote. He writes: " In our historical context there remains the obligation [of the state] to ensure that everyone can enjoy the freedom, rest and relaxation which human dignity requires, together with the associated religious, family, cultural and interpersonal needs which are difficult to meet if there is no guarantee of at least one day a week on which people can both rest and celebrate."99
The Influence of the Pastoral Letter.
At this point, the indications are that John Paul is deeply committed to bringing about a renewal and revival of Sunday observance by ensuring that civil legislation facilitates the obligation to keep Sunday holy. While in Rome last October (1998), I contacted the "Sala Stampaóthe Press Office" of the Vatican to learn if the Pope has been pursuing further the call of his Pastoral Letter for a revival of Sundaykeeping. The Office informed me that there is no doubt that the Pope is serious about it. One indication is that during the three months following the release of the Pastoral Letter, in his Sunday address before reciting the "Angelus," John Paul has consistently appealed to the faithful "to rediscover the importance of Sunday."100
The influence of the Holy See on the international community must not be underestimated. It is reported that when confronted by Pope Pious XIIís opposition, Stalin smirked, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" If Stalin were to come out of his grave, he would be shocked to discover that the communist regime that he established with so much bloodshed has collapsed due, in no small degree, to the influence of the man who commands no military divisions.
In evaluating John Paulís role in helping to bring about the fall of totalitarian regimes, Gorbachev said in 1992: "Everything that happened in Eastern Europe during these past few years would have been impossible without the Pope, without the political role he was able to play."101
A major goal of John Paulís global vision is to protect and defend the rights of the Catholic Church to carry out her mission unhindered. In a speech entitled "The Vaticanís Role in World Affairs: The Diplomacy of Pope John Paul II," J. Michael Miller, CSB, President of the University of St. Thomas and former employee of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See (1992-1997), stated: "The driving force behind John Paulís diplomatic initiatives is the defense of human rights, especially religious freedom, which allows the Church to carry out its mission in peace. . . . John Paul does have what we might call an Ďagendaí for world affairs which he works systematically to promote through his preaching, his speeches to political leaders, his major writings, his endless globetrottingówhich does not avoid trouble spots."102
The influence of the Pope in the international arena is far greater than many realize. It is important to clarify that it is not the Vatican as a State that participates in international affairs, but the Holy See. The latter is not a territorial State, but a moral and juridical society, governed by the Pope, and representative of the Catholic Church in the community of nations. At present the Holy See maintains full diplomatic relations with over 160 nations. It receives and sends ambassadors all over the world. It has signed formal agreements with sovereign nations. It participates in dozens of international organizations concerned with moral, social, humanitarian, and cultural affairs.
The goals of John Paul, as Michael Miller rightly points out, "are, admittedly, a mixture of the religious and the more narrowly political. John Paul, however, is not constrained by American ideas of the separation of church and State, but pursues what he regards as the common good of all humanity."103
This mixture of religious and political goals can be detected in reading the Pastoral Letter where John Paul calls for Sunday rest as a religious and social necessity. For example, he writes: "The link between the Lordís Day and the day of rest in civil society has meaning and importance which go beyond the distinctly Christian point of view."104 By calling for a civil Sunday legislation on the basis of the common good of all humanity, John Paul can gain considerable support for his agenda from the international community of nations.
To call upon Christians to "strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy"105 means to ignore that we live today in a pluralistic society where there are, for example, Christians and Jews who observe the seventh-day Sabbath as their Holy Day, and Moslems who may wish to observe their Friday.
If Sundaykeepers expect the State to make Sunday a legal holiday to facilitate their Sunday rest and worship, then Sabbatarians have an equal right to expect the State to make Saturday a legal holiday to protect their Sabbath rest and worship. To be fair to the various religious and nonreligious groups, the State would then have to pass legislation guaranteeing special days of rest and worship to different groups of people. The implementation of such a plan is inconceivable because it would disrupt our socioeconomic structure.
Sunday Laws Not Needed.
Sunday legislation is superfluous today because the short-work week, with a long weekend of two or even three days, already makes it possible for most people to observe their Sabbath or Sunday. However, problems still do exist, especially when an employer is unwilling to accommodate the religious convictions of a worker. The solution to such problems is not to be sought in Sunday or Saturday Laws, but in such legislation as the pending Religious Freedom in the Workplace Act. This bill is designed to encourage employers to accommodate the religious convictions of their workers when these do not cause undue hardship to their company.
The Popeís call for Sunday Rest legislation ignores the fact that Sunday Laws have not resolved the crisis of diminishing church attendance. In most European countries, Sunday Laws have been in effect for many years. On Sunday most of the business establishments are shut down. Even most gasoline stations are closed on Sundayóa fact that can be costly to uninformed American tourists. But, have Sunday Laws facilitated church attendance? Absolutely not! The truth of the matter is that church attendance in Western Europe is considerably lower than that in the United States, running at less than 10% of the Christian population. In Italy, where I come from, it is estimated that 95% of the Catholics go to church three times in their lives, when they are "hatched, matched, and dispatched."
The moral and religious decline in our society is not due to lack of legislation but to lack of moral convictions to compel people to live according to the principles God has revealed. The Church should not seek to solve the crisis of diminishing church attendance by external legislation but by the internal moral and spiritual renovation of its members.
What many Christians need to discover today is that Christianity is not a cultural heritage that entails going to church from time to time but a commitment to Christ. This commitmentóós expressed in a special way on the Sabbath day when we stop our work in order to allow our Savior to work more fully and freely in our lives.
The solution to the crisis of declining church attendance must be sought, however, not by calling upon the international community of nations to make Sunday and the Catholic Holy Days civil holidays, but by summoning Christians to live according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.
The Fourth Commandment specifically calls upon believers to "Remember" what many have forgotten, namely, that the seventh day is holy unto the Lord our God (Ex 20:8-11). John Paul rightly acknowledges that "The Sabbath precept . . . is rooted in the depths of Godís plan"106 and is "a kind of Ďsacred architectureí of time which marks biblical revelation."107 He notes also that "When the divine commandment declares: ĎRemember the Sabbath day in order to keep it holyí (Ex 20:8), the rest decreed in order to honor the day dedicated to God is not all a burden imposed upon man, but rather an aid to help him recognize his life-giving and liberating dependence upon the Creator, and at the same time his calling to cooperate in the Creatorís work and to receive his grace."108
My appeal to Pope John Paul is to use the far-reaching influence of his office to help Christians everywhere rediscover the Sabbath, as he puts it, not as a burden, but as an "aid" designed to help them recognize their "life-giving and liberating dependence upon the[ir] Creator."109 This vital function of the Sabbath has long been forgotten by most Christians who have been taught through the centuries that the Sabbath is Jewish, fulfilled by Christ, and no longer binding upon Christians. This heresy has deprived a countless number of Christians of the physical, moral, and spiritual renewal provided by a proper observance of the Sabbath.
Our tension-filled and restless society needs to rediscover the Sabbath as that "sacred architecture of time," which can give structure and stability to our lives and relationship with God. At a time when many are seeking for inner peace and rest through magic pills or fabulous places, the Sabbath invites us to find such inner rest and renewal, not through pills or places, but through the Person of our Saviour who says: "Come unto me, and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28). It invites us to stop our work on the Sabbath in order to allow our Savior to work more freely and fully in our lives and thus experience the awareness of His presence, peace, and rest.
Chapter 1, Part 2b
Chapter 2, Part 1
Notes to Chapter 1, Part 3
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University