THE MEANING OF SUNDAY
by Fr. Michael Azkoul
The Holy Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship. It is held on Sunday, otherwise known as “the first day,” “the Lord’s Day,” “the Day of Yahweh,” “the eighth Day” and as the Russians call it, “Resurrection Day.” Each time a Liturgy is held is Sunday or the Lord’s Day, but the Day after the Sabbath is called Sunday especially, because on that Day the Son of God defeated the Devil by His Resurrection (and for other reasons that we will investigate later). Every doing of the Eucharist is a “Sunday,” but Sunday has more emphasis because of the relation between the Sunday Eucharist and “the Day of the Lord.”
The word “Sunday” is pagan in origin. The right word is “kuriake” or the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). Anyway, on the first day of the week the pagans gathered to worship the Sun and it was called by them, “the Day of the Sun.” The Church does not believe that it was pure coincidence that Christ was resurrected on that particular day. Of course, it was not just for the benefit of the pagans that Christ rose from the dead, but the Sun has a very special Christian meaning. Christ is called by the Bible “the Sun of Justice,” because as that ball of fire in the sky. Jesus is the source of Life and Light. Christianity accepted the name “Sunday” for the Day of Resurrection because it was the spiritual Life and Light given to mankind.
It should be more than obvious that between Sunday and the Sabbath there is a great difference. Sunday is a transfer of the Sabbath to the following Day. Sunday has a meaning the Sabbath could never have. Even the law that no work should be done on Sunday was not a part of early Christianity. This idea that no work should be done was changed by Christ and the early Church. A no-work Sunday begins only with the regulations of the Byzantine Emperors Constantine and Theodosius for their armies and law courts. In other words, the Jewish practice of not working on the Sabbath is not something spiritual, just keeping a law; while the Christian belief in the Lord’s Day or Sunday is putting God in our souls. Some writers go so far as to point with pride to the fact that on holy days, especially Sunday, early Christians met before dawn to receive the Sacraments. They refused to do evil, but they worked on Sunday. Thus, we see that the Lord’s Day or Sunday is something entirely new. It is no imitation of the Sabbath. Sunday is a Christian product which gains importance from the celebration of the Sacraments, particularly, the Holy Eucharist.
In the Prophets and especially Isaiah, we find the statement so often repeated by the Fathers of the Church that the true Sabbath is not ceasing from physical work, but to stop sinning. Listen to Isaiah (1, 13-19):
“Bring no more useless oblations; your incense is hateful to me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of the assemblies, I will not accept: even your solemn meeting in iniquities. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they are troublesome to me; I am weary of them. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you: yea, you make many prayers, I will not hear them: your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves clean, therefore; put away evil doings from my sight; stop doing evil, learn to do well; seek the truth, help the oppressed, help the fatherless, plead for the widow. Then come to me and we can reason, said the Lord: if you do this, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; they can be as red as crimson, but they will be as wool.
The New Testament points out that the Old Testament Sabbath is now gone, because Christ has come. For example, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the disciples were picking ears of corn in a field. The Pharisees protested but Christ came to the defense of His own (Matt. xii, 1-8). He makes it understood that He is free to get rid of this institution. Christ is greater than the Jewish idea of the Sabbath. Christ is the new Sabbath and Temple of the New Testament. He says: “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matt. xi, 28-29). Christ is the Sabbath, the time of rest. Christ is a living Temple, a spiritual Temple, not that physical building where the Jews had worshipped. Christ is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. He is the real Temple which the Temple of Solomon foretells. He is the Temple in which all true believers rest.
The statement in Matthew that Christ is the true rest is followed by the episode of the healing on the Sabbath day of the man with the withered hand. The Jews protested, of course, but Jesus told them: “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not take hold of it and pull it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” (xi, 11-12). This healing, like all the miracles of Jesus, is the thing that is to be done in His Kingdom when it is established on earth. This Kingdom, as we know, is the Church. The Church is “the Body of Christ.” So, this miracle is like the ones that will take place in the Church. The Church is also the Sabbath. Christ inaugurates the true Sabbath, the Kingdom of God, the Church which replaces the Jewish Sabbath which meant rest, rest from work. The Gospel of St. John gives us another episode: the healing on the Sabbath of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (v. 1-19). The Jews persecuted Jesus because He did this on the Sabbath day wherein no work was to be done. Jesus answered: “My Father works until now, and I work.” (v.17). The Jews were angry and sought to kill Him “because He made Himself equal to God.” (v. 18). Thus, Christ condemns the idea of the Sabbath—or Sunday— as idleness.
It might be asked why the seventh day was given to the Jews as a day of rest in the Ten Commandments. It was given as a means of education. God worked gradually. He gave them a law to prepare them for the real spiritual meaning. The spiritual meaning is made known in Jesus Christ. As St. Paul said: “Let no one, then, call you to account for what you eat or drink, or in regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These were all a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” (Col. ii. 16). Everything in the Old Testament points in one way or another to Christ. Christ is the Sabbath. For the Jews the Sabbath was the day in which they were to rest and go to the Temple or Synagogue. For Christians, the Sabbath is Christ in Whom we are to rest from sin and in which we are to live. The Jews too rest. In Christ we are given rest. It is possible now to live in God, as the Jews lived in the Temple on the Sabbath. Now it is possible not to sin, as the Jews had the possibility not to work.
Christ is the Sabbath, Christ brought the Kingdom of God which is begun in the Church. The Church is the entrance of man into the future world. The future world is perfect unity with God. We have this unity even now in the Holy Eucharist which is given on the Lord’s Day. Before we can enter the Lord’s Day, we must fulfill the Sabbath: join ourselves to Christ or rest from sin. This is done by being Baptized or as St. Paul said:
“Know ye not that as many of you are were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore, we are buried with Him by baptism, into death and just as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of God the Father, likewise we will be able to have a new life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” (Rom. vi. 2-5).
Being crucified with Christ through Baptism, we may be resurrected with Him. You see, Baptism means drowning the original sin in purifying water. That original sin corrupts our soul and body and makes us like Adam. Being Baptized, we are changed. We are given the possibility to be perfect. Jesus Christ died so that sin would be drowned. When we die with Christ, we can be resurrected with Him on “the Lord’s Day”. Sunday, then, is the Day of the Resurrection of Christ. Each Sunday is a “little Easter.” By partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ, i.e., His Sacrifice to the Father, we share in His Death and therefore His Resurrection.
When the Church assembles on the Lord’s Day, She celebrates that which made the Resurrection possible, also. The Holy Eucharist is the Lord’s Supper, a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ. That Body and Blood hung on the Cross. Receiving the Body and Blood, we hang on the Cross. We die with Christ. We therefore, rise with Him on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. When we receive the Holy Eucharist we are in union with God: that is finally what we mean by the Kingdom of God. The Holy Communion which we must take each Sunday is therefore a taste of complete Resurrection and the Kingdom to come, the time when there will be perfect rest. When we receive Holy Communion our souls are resurrected so that in the Day of Judgment our bodies will be resurrected. In the Church, where we are offered the Holy Eucharist, we live in an acorn of rest that will grow and grow into the perfect oak of rest. Those who have been baptized into His Death and live in His Resurrected Body will be raised in the Last Day, “the eighth Day,” at the end, we who live in Christ, will be perfect as Christ and will be the “the seventh Day.” Listen to St. Augustine (C.D. xxii):
“For we shall ourselves be the seventh Day, when we shall be filled and replenished with God’s blessing and sanctification … when we are (completely) restored by Him and made perfect with greater grace, we shall have eternal leisure to see that He is God, for we shall be full of Him when He shall be all in all. For even our good works, when they are understood to be His rather than ours … we may enjoy this Sabbath rest. For if we trace good works to ourselves, they will be work: for it is said of the Sabbath. ‘You shall do not work in it’ (Deut. v, 14). Wherefore also it is said by Ezekiel the prophet. ‘And I gave them my Sabbaths to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctify them’ … This knowledge shall be perfect when we shall be perfectly at rest and know God perfectly …
In other words. by joining ourselves to Christ, we live in Christ and have the possibility of all the things God has promised us. Living in Christ, we live in the Sabbath and are introduced to the Kingdom to come. We are introduced into the Lord’s Day which we meet all too briefly on Sunday or whenever the Divine Liturgy is held. The Lord’s Day is the Day of Christ’s Resurrection. The Day when Christ rose from the dead and gave all men who are in the Church the possibility to do the same. We can be physically resurrected at the end of time. The soul is taken from death so later the body will be resurrected. The soul is risen from spiritual death, so that the body will join it in heaven. The soul that does not receive spiritual life in Christ will join the body in spiritual death in hell. (I say, the Church, because She is His Body.) When we die spiritually with Christ through Baptism and are resurrected spiritually with Him in the Holy Eucharist, we establish in our hearts the Sabbath and enter the Lord’s Day. We enter ahead of time, the “Eighth Day.”
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America