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The SABBATH under Crossfire

Pope John Paul and the Sabbath #1

                      THE SABBATH UNDER CROSSFIRE 

Chapter 1 


     On May 31, 1998, Pope John Paul II promulgated a lengthy
Pastoral Letter, "Dies Domini" in which he makes a passionate
plea for a revival of Sunday observance. He appeals to the moral
imperative of the Sabbath commandment and to the need of civil
legislation to facilitate Sunday observance. This document has
enormous historical significance since it addresses the critical
problem of the prevailing Sunday profanation at "the threshold of
the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000." 1  This event has great
significance for the Catholic Church, as over thirty million
Catholics are expected to make their pilgrimage to Rome, seeking
forgiveness for their own sins and a reduction of the temporal
punishment for their loved ones in Purgatory.
     The Pope is keenly aware that the crisis of Sunday
observance is a major obstacle to the spiritual renewal the Great
Jubilee is designed to bring about. He believes that the
prevailing profanation of Sunday reflects the spiritual crisis of
the Catholic Church and of Christianity, in general. The
"strikingly low" attendance to the Sunday Mass indicates, in the
Pope's view, that "faith is weak" and "diminishing." 2  He
believes that if this trend is not reversed it can threaten the
future of the Catholic Church as it stands at the threshold of
the third millennium. He states: "The Lord's Day has structured
the history of the Church through two thousand years: how could
we think that it will not continue to shape the future?" 3
     While reading the Pastoral Letter, I was reminded of a
speech President Abraham Lincoln delivered on November 13, 1862.
There he emphasized the vital function of the Sabbath in the
survival of Christianity: "As we keep or break the Sabbath day,
we nobly save or meanly loose the last and the best hope by which
mankind arises." 4  Obviously, for Abraham Lincoln, the Sabbath
meant Sunday. This does not detract from the fact that one of
American's outstanding presidents recognized in the principle of
Sabbathkeeping the best hope to renew and elevate human beings.
     The Pastoral Letter, like all papal documents, has been
skillfully crafted with an introduction; five chapters which
examine the importance of Sunday observance from theological,
historical, liturgical, and social perspectives; and a
conclusion. Pope John Paul and his advisers must be commended for
composing a well-balanced document that addresses major issues
relating to Sunday observance within the space limitation of
approximately thirty pages.
     The introduction sets the stage for the Pope's pastoral
concerns by identifying some of the contributory factors to the
crisis of Sunday observance and the solution that must be sought.
A major factor is the change that has occurred "in socioeconomic
conditions [which] have often led to profound modifications of
social behavior and hence of the character of Sunday." 5  The
Pope notes with regret that Sunday has become merely "a part of a
weekend" when people are involved "in cultural, political or
sporting activities" that cause the loss of awareness of "keeping
the Lord's Day holy." 6
     Given the present situation, John Paul strongly believes
that today it is "more necessary than ever to recover the deep
doctrinal foundations underlying the Church's precept, so that
the abiding value of Sunday in the Christian life will be clear
to all the faithful." 7
     The Pastoral Letter reveals that the Pope firmly believes
that the solution to the crisis of Sunday observance entails both
doctrinal and legal aspects. Doctrinally, Christians need to
rediscover the "biblical" foundations of Sunday observance in
order to keep the day holy. Legally, Christians must "ensure that
civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy." 8

Objectives of This Chapter. 

     No attempt is made in this chapter to analyze all the
aspects of Sunday observance discussed in the Pastoral Letter. In
the light of the overall objective of this book to consider from
a biblical perspective the recent attacks against the Sabbath,
this chapter focuses especially on how Pope John Paul deals with
the Sabbath in his attempt to justify and promote Sunday

     The chapter divides into three major parts in accordance
with the following three major issues addressed:

Pope John Paul II and the Sabbath
(1) The theological connection between Sabbath and Sunday (2) The
"biblical" support for Sunday observance
(3) The call for Sunday legislation


     A surprising aspect of the Pastoral Letter is Pope John
Paul's defense of Sunday observance as the embodiment and "full
expression" of the Sabbath. In some ways this view represents a
significant departure from the traditional Catholic explanation
that Sunday observance is an ecclesiastical institution different
from the Sabbath. In the past, this explanation virtually has
been regarded as an established fact by Catholic theologians and
historians. Thomas of Aquinas, for instance, makes this
unambiguous statement: "In the New Law the observance of the
Lord's day took the place of the observance of the Sabbath not by
virtue of the precept [Sabbath commandment] but by the
institution of the Church and the custom of Christian people." 9
     In his dissertation presented to the Catholic University of
America, Vincent J. Kelly similarly affirms: "Some theologians
have held that God likewise directly determined the Sunday as the
day of worship in the New Law, that He Himself has explicitly
substituted the Sunday for the Sabbath. But this theory is now
entirely abandoned. It is now commonly held that God simply gave
His Church the power to set aside whatever day or days she would
deem suitable as Holy Days. The Church chose Sunday, the first
day of the week, and in the course of time added other days, as
holy days." 10
     Even the new "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (1994)
emphasizes the discontinuity between Sabbath and Sunday
observance: "Sunday is expressly distinguished from the Sabbath
which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its
ceremonial observance replaces that of the Sabbath." 11
     John Paul departs from the traditional distinction the
Catholic Church has made between Sabbath and Sunday, presumably
because he wants to make Sunday observance a moral imperative
rooted in the Decalogue itself. By so doing, the Pope challenges
Christians to respect Sunday, not merely as an ecclesiastical
institution, but as a divine command. Furthermore, by rooting
Sundaykeeping in the Sabbath commandment, the Pope offers the
strongest moral reasons to urge Christians to "ensure that civil
legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy." 
     The Pope's vew of Sunday as the embodiment and "full
expression" of the Sabbath stands in stark contrast to the
so-called "New Covenant" and Dispensational authors who emphasize
the radical discontinuity between Sabbath and Sunday. The latter,
as we shall see in the following chapters, is also the position
of former sabbatarians who reduce the Sabbath to a Mosaic, Old
Covenant institution that terminated at the Cross. The Pope
rejects this position, defending instead the creational origin of
the Sabbath in which he finds the theological foundation of
Sunday observance. He writes: "In order to grasp fully the
meaning of Sunday, therefore, we must re-read the great story of
creation and deepen our understanding of the theology of the
'Sabbath.'" 12

Creative and Redemptive Meanings of the Sabbath. 

     The Pope's reflections on the theological meaning of the
Sabbath are most perceptive and should especially thrill
Sabbatarians. For example, speaking of God's rest on the seventh
day of creation, John Paul says: "The divine rest of the seventh
day does not allude to an inactive God, but emphasizes the
fullness of what has been accomplished. It speaks, as it were, of
God's lingering before the 'very good' work (Gen 1:31) which his
hand has wrought, in order to cast upon it a gaze full of joyous
delight. This is a 'contemplative' gaze which does not look to
new accomplishments but enjoys the beauty of what has already
been achieved." 13
     This profound theological insight into the meaning of the
divine Shabbat as a rest of cessation in order to express the
satisfaction over a complete, perfect creation, and to fellowship
with His creation, is developed at some length in my book "Divine
Rest for Human Restlessness." There I wrote: "God's cessation on
the seventh day from doing expresses His desire for being with
His creation, for giving to His creatures not only things but
Himself." 14
     John Paul speaks eloquently of the theological development
of the Sabbath from the rest of creation (Gen 2:1-3; Ex 20:8-11)
to the rest of redemption (Deut 5:12-15). He notes that in the
Old Testament the Sabbath commandment is linked "not only with
God's mysterious 'rest' after the days of creation (cf. Ex
20:8-11), but also with the salvation which he offers to Israel
in the liberation from the slavery of Egypt (cf. Deut.5:1215).
The God who rests on the seventh day, rejoicing in His creation,
is the same God who reveals his glory in liberating his children
from Pharaoh's oppression." 15
     Being a memorial of creation and redemption, "the 'Sabbath'
has therefore been interpreted evocatively as a determining
element in the kind of 'sacred architecture' of time which marks
biblical revelation. It recalls that the universe and history
belong to God; and without constant awareness of that truth, man
cannot serve in the world as a co-worker of the Creator." 16

The Sabbath Defines Our Relationship with God. 

     Contrary to Dispensational and so-called "New Covenant"
writers who reduce the Sabbath to a Mosaic, ceremonial ordinance
given exclusively to Jews, John Paul rightly recognizes that "the
Sabbath precept ... is rooted in the depths of God's plan. This
is why, unlike many other precepts, it is set not within the
context of strictly cultic stipulations but within the Decalogue,
the `'en words' which represents the very pillars of the moral
life inscribed on the human heart. In setting this commandment
within the context of the basic structure of ethics, Israel and
then the Church declare that they consider it not just a matter
of community religious discipline but a defining and indelible
expression of our relationship with God, announced and expounded
by biblical revelation. This is the perspective within which
Christians need to rediscover this precept today." 17
     What a profound statement worth pondering! Sabbathkeeping is
"not just a matter of community religious discipline but a
defining and indelible expression of our relationship with God."
     To appreciate the truth of this statement, it is important
to remember that our life is a measure of time, and the way we
use our time is indicative of our priorities. Believers who give
priority to God in their thinking and living on the Sabbath show
in a tangible way that God really counts in their life. Thus,
Sabbathkeeping is indeed "a defining and indelible expression of
our relationship with God."
     John Paul develops this point eloquently saying: "Man's
relationship with God demands times of explicit prayer, in which
the relationship becomes an intense dialogue, involving every
dimension of the person. 'The Lord's Day' is the day of this
relationship par excellence when men and women raise their song
to God and become the voice of all creation." 18

Sunday as the Fulfillment of the Sabbath. 

     In the light of these profound theological insights into the
Sabbath as being a kind of "sacred architecture" of time that
marks the unfolding of God's creative and redemptive activity,
and as the defining expression of our relationship with
God, one wonders how does the Pope succeed in developing a
theological justification for Sunday observance? He does this by
making Sunday the embodiment of the biblical Sabbath.
     For example, John Paul without hesitation applies to Sunday
God's blessing and sanctification of the Sabbath at creation.
"Sunday is the day of rest because it is the day 'blessed' by God
and 'made holy' by him, set apart from the other days to be,
among them, 'the Lord's Day.'" 19
     More importantly, the Pope makes Sunday the "full
expression" of the Sabbath by arguing that Sunday, as the Lord's
Day, fulfills the creative and redemptive functions of the
Sabbath. These two functions, the Pope claims, "reveal the
meaning of the 'Lord's Day' within a single theological vision
which fuses creation and salvation." 20
"On 'the Lord's Day," John Paul explains, "which the Old
Testament [Sabbath] links to the work of creation (cf. Gen 2:1-3;
Ex 20:8-11) and the Exodus (cf. Deut 5:12-15), the Christian is
called to proclaim the new creation and the new covenant brought
about in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Far from being abolished,
the celebration of creation becomes more profound within a
Christocentric perspective .... The remembrance of the liberation
of the Exodus also assumes its full meaning by Christ in his
Death and Resurrection. More than a 'replacement' of the Sabbath,
therefore, Sunday is its fulfillment, and in a certain sense its
extension and full expression in the ordered unfolding of the
history of salvation, which reaches its culmination in Christ."
     The Pope maintains that New Testament Christians "made the
first day after the Sabbath a festive day" because they
discovered that the creative and redemptive accomplishments
celebrated by the Sabbath, found their "fullest expression in
Christ's Death and Resurrection, though its definitive
fulfillment will not come until the Parousia, when Christ returns
in glory." 22
     The Pope's attempt to make Sunday the "extension and full
expression" of the creative and redemptive meanings of the
Sabbath is very ingenious, but it lacks biblical and historical
support. There are no indications in the New Testament that
Christians ever interpreted Sunday to be the embodiment of the
creative and redemptive meanings of the Sabbath. From a biblical
and historical perspective, Sunday is not the Sabbath because the
two days differ in authority. The difference in authority lies in
the fact that while Sabbathkeeping rests upon an explicit
biblical command (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11; Mark 2:27-28; Heb 4:9),
Sundaykeeping derives from an interplay of social, political,
pagan, and religious factors. I have examined these factors at
length in my dissertation "From Sabbath to Sunday," published by
the Pontifical Gregorian University, in Rome, Italy. The lack of
a biblical authority for Sundaykeeping may well be a major
contributing factor to the crisis of Sunday observance that John
Paul rightly laments.
     The vast majority of Christians, especially in the Western
world, view their Sunday as a holiday to seek personal pleasure
and profit rather than a holy day to seek divine presence and
peace. I submit that a major contributing factor to the
secularization of Sunday is the prevailing perception that there
is no divine, biblical command to keep Sunday as a holy day.
The lack of a biblical conviction that Sunday should be observed
as the holy Sabbath day may well explain why most Christians see
nothing wrong in devoting their Sunday time to themselves rather
than to the Lord. If there was a strong theological conviction
that the principle of Sundaykeeping was divinely established at
creation and later "inscribed" in the Decalogue, as the Pope
attempts to prove, then Christians would feel compelled to act

Difference in Meaning. 

     John Paul recognizes the need to make Sundaykeeping a moral
imperative and he tries to accomplish this by rooting the day in
the Sabbath commandment itself. But this cannot be done because
Sunday is not the Sabbath. The two days have a different meaning
and function. While in Scripture the Sabbath memorializes God's
perfect creation, complete redemption, and final restoration,
Sunday is justified in the earliest Patristic literature as the
commemoration of the creation of light on the first day of the
week, the cosmic-eschatological symbol of the new eternal world
typified by the eighth day, and the memorial of Christ's Sunday
Resurrection. 23
     None of the historical meanings attributed to Sunday require
per se the observance of the day by resting and worshipping the
Lord. For example, nowhere does Scripture suggest that the
creation of light on the first day ought to be celebrated through
a weekly Sunday rest and worship. Even the Resurrection event, as
we shall see, does not require per se a weekly or annual Sunday
     The attempt to transfer to Sunday the biblical authority and
meaning of the Sabbath is doomed to fail because it is impossible
to retain the same authority, meaning, and experience when the
date of a festival is changed. For example, if a person or an
organization should succeed in changing the date of the
Declaration of Independence from the 4th to the 5th of July, the
new date could hardly be viewed as the legitimate celebration of
Independence Day.
     Similarly, if the festival of the Sabbath is changed from
the seventh to the first day, the latter can hardly memorialize
the divine acts of creation, redemption, and final restoration
which are linked to the typology of the Sabbath. To invest Sunday
with the theological meaning and function of the Sabbath means to
adulterate a divine institution by making a holy day out of what
God created to be a working day.

Difference in Experience. 

     Third, the difference between Sabbath and Sunday is one of
experience. While Sundaykeeping began and has remained largely
the hour of worship, Sabbathkeeping is presented in Scriptures as
twenty-four hours consecrated to God. In spite of the efforts
made by Constantine, church councils, and the Puritans to make
Sunday a total day of rest and worship, the historical reality is
that Sunday observance has been equated with church attendance.
John Paul acknowledges this historical reality in chapter 3 of
the Pastoral Letter entitled "The Day of the Church. The
Eucharistic Assembly: The Heart of Sunday." The thrust of the
chapter is that the heart of Sunday observance is the
participation in the Mass. He cites the new Catechism of the
Catholic Church, which says: "The Sunday celebration of the
Lord's Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church's
life." 24
     The end of Sunday church services represents for many
Christians also the termination of Sundaykeeping. After church,
they go in good conscience to the shopping mall, a ball game, a
dance hall, a theater, etc.  It came as a surprise for me to
discover that even in the "Bible Belt" many  shops open for
business as soon as the church services are over. The  message is
clear. The rest of Sunday is business as usual.
     The recognition of this historical reality has led
Christopher Kiesling, a distinguished Catholic Liturgists, to
argue for the abandonment of the notion of Sunday as a day of
rest and for the retention of Sunday as the hour of worship. 25
His reasoning is that since Sunday has never been a day of total
rest and worship, there is no hope to make it so today when most
people want holidays, not holy days.
     Celebrating the Sabbath, however, means not merely attending
church services but consecrating its twenty-four hours to the
Lord. The Sabbath commandment does not say, "Remember the Sabbath
day to keep it holy by attending Sabbath school and church
services." What the commandment requires is to work six days and
rest on the seventh day unto the Lord (Ex 20:8-10). This means
that the essence of Sabbathkeeping is the consecration of time.
The act of resting unto the Lord makes all the Sabbath
activities, whether they be formal worship or informal fellowship
and recreation, an act of worship because all of them spring out
of a heart which has decided to honor God.
     The act of resting on the Sabbath unto the Lord becomes the
means through which the believer enters into God's rest (Heb
4:10) by experiencing more fully and freely the awareness of
God's presence, peace, and rest. This unique experience of
Sabbathkeeping is foreign to Sundaykeeping because the essence of
the latter is not the consecration of time but rather church
attendance, generally followed by secular activities.

     In the light of the foregoing considerations, we conclude
that the Pope's attempt to make Sunday the theological and
existential embodiment of the Sabbath is doomed to fail because
the two days differ radically in their authority, meaning, and



     The second chapter of the Pastoral Letter entitled "Dies
Christi The Day of Christ" focuses on three major, biblical
events that allegedly justify Sunday observance: (1) The
Resurrection and appearances of Christ which took place on 'the
first day after the Sabbath' (Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1; John
20:1);26 (2) the religious gatherings that occurred on the first
day of the week (cf. 1 Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7-12); 27 and (3) the
outpouring of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Resurrection
which occurred on a Sunday (Acts 2:2-3). 28  We examine these
arguments in their respective order.

(1) The Resurrection/Appearances of Christ

     The Pope maintains that the earliest Christians "made the
first day after the Sabbath a festive day, for that was the day
on which the Lord rose from the dead." 29  He argues that though
Sunday is rooted in the creative and redemptive meaning of the
Sabbath, the day finds its full expression

To be continued

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