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From Sabbath to Sunday

Retrospect and Prospect

                          FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY


by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD

     In introducing our study we posed several vital questions
What are the Biblical and historical reasons for Sunday-keeping?
Can Sunday be regarded as the legitimate replacement of the
Sabbath? Can the fourth commandment be rightly invoked to enjoin
Sunday observance? Should Sunday be viewed as the hour of worship
rather than the holy day of rest to the Lord? We stated at the
outset that to answer these questions, and thereby to formulate
valid theological criteria needed to help solve the pressing
problem of the widespread profanation of Sunday, it is
indispensable to ascertain both the Biblical basis and the
historical genesis of this festivity. We believe that this
verification was justified by the Christian conviction that any
present decision regarding the Lord's day must be based on
Biblical authority confronted with the historical developments of
primitive Christianity.

     Having reached the end of our historical investigation, we
summarize its results and consider its implications for the
urgent questions of today. We are aware that the conclusions
which have emerged in the course of the present study, though the
result of an effort which has been intentionally honest and
objective, still rest on an inevitable personal interpretation of
available evidences. It will be therefore the sieve of the
critics that will eventually corroborate or challenge their
validity. Nevertheless the fact remains that our conclusions
represent the result of a serious effort which has been made to
understand and interpret the available sources. The reader will
in fact find in the preceding pages extensive discussion and
precise reasons for every single conclusive statement which we
now submit.

     The analysis of the ample Sabbath material of the Gospels
has revealed, first of all, the high esteem in which the Sabbath
was held both in Jewish circles and in primitive Christianity. We
have shown that the Gospels testify that for the earliest
Christians, Christ did not, as some contend, "push into the
background" or "simply annul" 1  the Sabbath commandment to pave
the way for a new day of worship, but rather He enriched its
meaning and function by fulfilling its Messianic typology. This
Jesus did, not only by announcing His redemptive mission to be
the fulfillment of the promises of liberation of the sabbatical
time (Luke 4:18-21), but also through His program of Sabbath
reforms. We noticed that the Lord acted deliberately on the
Sabbath, contrary to prevailing rabbinical restrictions, in order
to reveal the true meaning of the Sabbath in the light of His
work of redemption: a day to commemorate the divine blessings of
salvation, especially by expressing kindness and mercy toward

     To make the Sabbath a permanent symbol of His redemptive
blessings, we found that Christ identified His Sabbath ministry
with that of the priests, whose work in the temple on the Sabbath
was lawful on account of its redemptive function. As the true
temple and priest, Christ likewise intensified on the Sabbath His
saving ministry (Mark 3:4-5; Matt. 12:1-14; John 5:17, 7:23, 9:4)
so that sinners whom "Satan bound" (Luke 13:16) might experience
and remember the Sabbath as the memorial of their redemption.
     That the apostolic community understood this expanded
meaning and function of the Sabbath, we found indicated not only
by the Gospel's accounts of Christ's Sabbath pronouncements and
healing activities, but also by Hebrews 4 where the Sabbath is
presented as the permanent symbol of the blessings of salvation
available to all believers by faith.

     The object of our study, however, was not to trace the
theological development and/or actual practice of the Sabbath
among early Christians, but rather to ascertain the historical
genesis of Sunday observance. Nevertheless, in examining, for
instance, the Biblical and historical data regarding the
primitive community of Jerusalem for traces of Sunday observance,
we found irresistible proof that both the membership and the
leadership of the mother Church of Christendom were mostly Jewish
converts deeply attached to Jewish religious observances such as
Sabbath-keeping. A convincing evidence was provided by the sect
of the Nazarenes, a group descending directly from

1 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.70; speaking of the primitive Christians
Rordorf emphatically states: "They came to understand that this
commandment had been fulfilled and abolished in Jesus" (ibid. p.

the primitive community of Jerusalem. These, we found, retained
exclusively Sabbath-keeping after A.D.70 as one of their
distinguishing marks, thus proving that no change from Sabbath to
Sunday occurred among primitive Palestinian Jewish Christians.
We submitted to careful scrutiny the three New Testament passages
(I Cor.16:1-2; Acts 20:7-11; Rev.1:10) generally cited as proof
of Sunday observance in apostolic times. We are able to show,
however, that they provide no probative indication for the
practice of Sunday worship. We found the first explicit but yet
timid reference to Sunday in the Epistle of Barnabas (ch.15). The
author mentions no gatherings nor any eucharistic celebration,
but simply that Christians spent (Greek) the eighth day
rejoicing, inasmuch as it represented the prolongation of the
eschatological Sabbath to which is united the memory of the
resurrection.  Since Barnabas lived at the crucial time when
Emperor Hadrian (A.D.117-138) adopted rigorous and repressive
measures against the Jews, outlawing their religious observances
and particularly their Sabbath-keeping, we checked to see if
possibly Sunday observance made its first appearance at that
     We found that both external pressures and internal needs
encouraged many Christians at that time to break radically with
the Jews. Externally, the existing conflict between the Jews and
the empire made it necessary for Christians to develop a new
identity in order to avoid the repressive and punitive measures
(fiscal, military, political and literary) aimed at the Jews.
Internally, the influence of the synagogue and of Judaeo-
Christians who insisted on the literal observance of certain
Mosaic regulations, prompted Christians to sever their ties with
Judaism. To develop this new identity, many Christians not only
assumed a negative attitude toward the Jews as a people, but also
substituted characteristic Jewish religious observances such as
Passover and the Sabbath with Easter-Sunday and the weekly
Sunday. This action apparently would serve to make the Roman
authorities aware that Christians liberated from Jewish religious
ties represented for the empire irreproachable subjects.
     Several indications emerged in the course of our study
corroborating this hypothesis. We found, for instance, that with
Barnabas began the development of a body of "Christian" liter-
ature characterized by what we have called an "anti-Judaism of
differentiation." This found expression in a negative reinter-
pretation of the meaning and function of Jewish history and
observances like the Sabbath. We have shown that the devaluation
of the Sabbath was accomplished in several ways. Many, like
Barnabas, emptied the Sabbath commandment of all temporal meaning
and obligation by speculating on the superior symbology of Sunday
as the eighth day. The latter was arbitrarily traced back to
several references of the Old Testament where the number eight
occurs and was variously interpreted as representing the eternal
new world, the rest of the spirituals in the super-celestial
world, perfection and spirituality, the Christian dispensation of
grace, and the resurrection of Christ and of the believer. Over
against this exalted meaning of the eighth day, the Sabbath as
the seventh day was degraded to represent the end of the present
age, this transitory world, impurity and matter, the dispensation
of the law, and man's repose in the grave. Some, like Irenaeus,
Tertullian, and Origen, concerned to safeguard the consistency of
God's nature and law, preferred to retain the Sabbath as an
ecclesiastical and spiritual symbol (namely, perseverance in the
service of God during the whole life and abstention from sin)
while at the same time denying its literal obligation. Others, as
reflected in the "Didascalia," deprived the Sabbath of its
commemorative value of creation by making Sunday the symbol of
the anniversary and renewal of the old creation. Still others,
like Justin, assumed the most radical position, reducing the
Sabbath to a sign of divine reprobation imposed on the Jewish
people on account of their wickedness. In all these differing
interpretations, one detects a common concern to invalidate the
Sabbath in order to justify in its place Sunday observance. These
polemic and often absurd arguments fabricated to justify and
exalt Sunday at the expense of the Sabbath, substantiate our
hypothesis that Sunday observance was introduced in a climate of
controversy owing to an existing need to force a break with

     In the course of our investigation several concomitant
factors emerged suggesting that this break with Judaism and with
its characteristic festivities occurred first and to a greater
degree in the Church of Rome. We found, for instance, that in
Rome most Christian converts were of pagan extraction and
experienced an earlier differentiation from the Jews than
converts in the East. The repressive measures adopted by the
Romans against the Jews - particularly felt in the capital city
apparently encouraged the predominant Gentile membership of
the Church of Rome to clarify to the Roman authorities their
distinction from Judaism by changing the date and manner of
observance of characteristic Jewish festivals such as the
Passover and the Sabbath which most Christians still observed. We
found in fact that the Church of Rome took a definite stand
against both festivities. The "Quartodeciman Passover" was
substituted by Easter-Sunday apparently at the time of Hadrian
(A.D.117-138), as suggested by Irenaeus' reference to Bishop
Sixtus (ca. A.D.116-126) and by Epiphanius' statement regarding
the origin of the controversy at about A.D.135. The sources
attribute explicitly to the Bishop of Rome the role of pioneering
and championing Easter-Sunday, in order to avoid, as later stated
by Constantine, "all participation in the perjured conduct of the
Jews." The close nexus existing between Easter-Sunday and weekly
Sunday (the latter being viewed by many Fathers as an extension
of the former) gives us reason to believe that both festivities
originated contemporaneusly in Rome because of the same
anti-Judaic motivations. We found support for this conclusion in
the fact that the Church of Rome rigorously enforced fasting on
the Sabbath (a custom which apparently originated early in the
second century as an extension of the annual Holy Saturday fast)
to show, among other things, contempt for the Jews. Similarly, in
Rome the eucharistic celebration and religious assemblies were
forbidden on the Sabbath, to avoid appearing to observe the day
with the Jews. Moreover, we found that in the second century only
the Roman Bishop enjoyed sufficient ecclesiastical authority to
influence the greater part of Christendom to accept new customs
or observance (even though some churches refused to comply with
his instruction).

     The specific choice of Sunday as the new Christian day of
worship in contradistinction to the Jewish Sabbath was suggested,
however, not by anti-Judaism but by other factors. It appears
that anti-Judaism caused a devaluation and repudiation of the
Sabbath, thus creating the necessity to seek for a new day of
worship; but we found the reasons for the specific choice of
Sunday elsewhere. The diffusion of the Sun-cults, which early in
the second century caused the advancement of the day of the Sun
to the position of first day of the week (the position held
previously by the day of Saturn), oriented especially Christian
converts from paganism toward the day of the Sun. The choice of
the day of the Sun, however, was motivated not by the desire to
venerate the Sun-god on his day but evidently by two different
factors. On the one hand, the existence of a rich
Judaeo-Christian tradition which associated the Deity with the
sun and light, apparently predisposed Christians favorably toward
the day and symbolism of the sun. On the other hand Christians
realized, spontaneously perhaps, that the venerable day of the
Sun provided a fitting symbology that could efficaciously
commemorate and explain to the pagan world two fundamental events
of the history of salvation - creation and resurrection: "It is
on this day that the Light of the World has appeared and on this
day that the Sun of Justice has risen." 2

     Sunday, moreover, commemorated adequately both the beginning
of creation - in contradistinction to the Sabbath, the memorial
of its completion - and the resurrection of Christ, viewed as the
beginning of the new creation. We have shown that the motif of
the resurrection, which initially was not regarded as exclusive
or dominant, in time did become the preponderant reason for
Sunday worship. Lastly, Sunday was chosen inasmuch as, being the
eighth day following the seventh-day Sabbath, it could express
the continuation, the fulfillment and the supersedure of the
Sabbath both temporally and eschatologically.

     The picture then that emerges from the present investigation
is that the origin of Sunday was the result of an interplay of
Jewish, pagan and Christian factors. Judaism, as we have seen,
contributed negatively and positively to the rise of Sunday. The
negative aspect is represented by the repressive measures adopted
by the Romans against the rebelling Jews as well as by the Jewish
hostility toward Christians, both of which created the necessity
of a radical Christian separation from Judaism. This need for a
differentiation was a determining factor in causing both the
repudiation of the Sabbath and the exigency of a new day of
worship. The positive contribution of Judaism to the rise of
Sunday we have found possibly (?) in the psychological
orientation toward Sunday derived from the sectarian Jubilees'
calendar and especially in the Jewish apocalyptic speculations on
the cosmic week. The latter made it possible to defend the choice
of Sunday in Jewish and Jewish Christian circles, since as the
eighth eschatological day representing the eternal new world,
Sunday could be shown to be

2 Jerome, "In die dominicae Paschae homilia," CCL 78, 550, 1, 52.

superior to the seventh terrestrial millennium symbolized by the
Sabbath. Paganism suggested to those Christians who had
previously known the day and the cult of the sun, the possibility
of adopting the venerable day of the Sun as their new day of
worship, since its rich symbology was conducive to worship the
True Sun of Righteousness who on that day "divided light from
darkness and on the day of the resurrection separated faith from
infidelity." 3  Christianity, lastly, gave theological
justification to Sunday observance by teaching that the day
commemorated important events such as the inauguration of
creation, the resurrection of Christ and the eschatological hope
of the new world to come. It appears therefore that Jewish, pagan
and Christian factors, though of differing derivation, merged to
give rise to an institution capable of satisfying the many Jewish
and pagan converts. 

     In the light of these conclusions we ought to consider now
those questions raised at the outset regarding the theological
legitimacy of Sunday observance and its relevancy for Christians
today. Our study has shown (we hope persuasively) that the
adoption of Sunday observance in place of the Sabbath did not
occur in the primitive Church of Jerusalem by virtue of the
authority of Christ or of the Apostles, but rather took place
several decades later, seemingly in the Church of Rome, solicited
by external circumstances. The earliest theological
justifications in fact, do not reflect an organic
Biblical-apostolic teaching, but rather differing polemic
argumentations. Even those Biblical testimonia which were drawn
from the Old Testament (references to the numbers eight and one)
to prove the legitimacy and superiority of Sunday over the
Sabbath were mostly based on unwarranted criteria of Biblical
hermeneutic, and consequently they were in time abandoned. This
means, to put it bluntly, that Sunday observance does not rest
on a foundation of Biblical theology and/or o apostolic
authority, but on late contributory factors which we have
endeavored to identify in our present Study.
     It is noteworthy (as we were able to show in chapter IV of
our Italian dissertation) 4  that Sunday liturgy and rest were

3 Dionysius of Alexandria, in "Analecta sacra spicilegio"
solesmensi 4, ed. J. B. Pitra, 1883, p.421.
4 The chapter is entitled "Jewish Patterns for the Christian
Sunday." Basically this chapter is a comparison between the
worship and rest structure of the Sabbath and that of Sunday. On
the basis of the numerous parallelisms existing between the two
days, it is shown that Sunday was gradually structured after the
Sabbath, though innovations and modifications occurred. Owing to
the limitations of space and time we were unable to incorporate
this material in the present study.

patterned only gradually after the Jewish Sabbath. In fact,
the comolete application of the Sabbath commandment of a bodily
rest to Sunday was not accomplished before the fifth and sixth
centuries. 5
     This corroborates our contention that Sunday became the day
of rest and worship not by virtue of an apostolic precept but
rather by ecclesiastical authority exercised particularly by the
Church of Rome. In the past this explanation has been regarded
virtually as an established fact by Catholic theologians and
historians. Thomas of Aquinas, for instance, states

     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 but the institution of the Church and the custom
     of Christian people. 6

     Vincent J. Kelly, in his dissertation presented to the
Catholic University of America, 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
5 Earlier traces can be found in Tertullian, "De oratione" 23;
"Syriac Didascalia" 13; Eusebius, "Commentaria in Psalmos" 91, PG
23, 1169C.
Beginning with Ephraem Syrus (fn. 18) the equation of Sunday with
the Sabbath becomes explicit. Jerome (fn. 2) (ca. A.D.342-420)
compares Jewish Sabbath-keeping with Christian Sunday observance:
"They [the Jews] performed no service works on the Sabbath, we do
not on the Lord's day"; cf. Pseudo-Jerome, "Epistola" 3, PL 33,
225; Caesarius of Arles (ca. A.D.470-542) uses the so called
"quanto magis-how much more" formula which was later repeated
countless times: "If the wretched Jews observed the Sabbath with
so much devotion to the extent of abstaining from all earthly
work, how much more Christians on the Lord's day must devote
themselves only to God" ("Sermo" 13, 3-4, CCSL 103, 1 p.68);
Martin of Braga, "De correctione rusticorum" 18, defines in
details the agricultural activities forbidden on Sunday. For a
study on the casuistic of Sunday rest, see M. Zalba, "De conceptu
operis," "Periodica" 52 (1963): 124-163; H.Huber, "Geist and
Buchstabe der Sonntagsruhe," 1958, pp.117f; W.Rordorf, "Sunday,"
6 Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologica," 1947, II, Q. 122 Art. 4, p.

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. 7 

     This traditional claim that the Church of Rome has been
responsible for the institution of Sunday observance, though
widely challenged by recent Catholic (and protestant)
scholarship, has been amply substantiated by our present
investigation. How does this conclusion affect the theological
legitimacy and relevancy of Sunday observance? For those
Christians who define their beliefs and practices exclusively by
the Reformation principle of "sola Scriptura" to observe Sunday  

as the Lord's day not on the authority of the Scripture but of 
the tradition of the Church, is a  paradoxical  predicament.  
As well stated by John Gilmary  "Protestantism, in discarding
the authority of the Church, has no good reasons for its Sunday
theory, and ought logically to keep Saturday as the Sabbath." 8

     A delimma, however, exists also for the Roman Catholic
Church, inasmuch as she has traditionally enjoined Sunday ob-
servance by invoking the authority of the Sabbath commandment. 
Pope John XXIII, for instance, in his encyclical "Mater et
Magistra" (1961) emphasizes the social and religious obligation
of Sunday observance by appealing explicitly to the Sabbath    
precept. He states:

     In order that the Church may defend the dignity with which
     man is endowed because he is created by God - and because
     God has breathed into him a soul to His own image, she as
     never failed to insist that the third commandment:

7 Vincent J. Kelly, "Forbidden Sunday and Feast-Day Occupations,"
Catholic University of America Press, 1943, p.2; Pope John
XXIII, "Mater et Magistra," trans. William J.Gibbons, Paulist
Press, 1961, p.76, "The Catholic Church has decreed for many
centuries that Christians observe this day of rest on Sunday, and
that they be present on the same day at the Eucharist Sacrifice";
John Gilmary Shea, "The Observance of Sunday and Civil Laws for
Its Enforcement," The American Catholic Quartely Review 8 (Jan.
1883): 139: "The Sunday, as a day of the week set apart for
obligatory public worship of Almightly God, to be sanctified by a
suspension of all servile labor, trade, and worldly avocations
and by exercises of devotion, is purely a creation of the
Catholic Church"; Martin J. Scott, "Things Catholics Are Asked
About," 1927, p.136: "Now the Church . . . instituted, by God's
authority, Sunday as the day of worship."
8 John Gilmary Shea (fn. 7), p.152.

"Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day," be carefully observe
by all. 9

     This justification of Sunday observance on the basis of the
Sabbath commandment raises important theological questions. How
is it possible to maintain that the Sabbath "has been fulfilled
and abolished in Jesus" 10  and yet at the same time enjoin
Sunday observance by appealing to the same Sabbath commandment?
     Moreover, how can the fourth commandment (third according to
Catholic reckoning) be legitimately applied to Sunday, when it is
the seventh and not the first day that the commandment demands to
keep holy? C.S.Mosna, conscious of this dilemma, in the
conclusive remarks of his dissertation proposes that "it would be
better to renounce seeking a foundation for Sunday rest in the
ancient Sabbath precept." 11

     On what ground then can Sunday rest be defended? Mosna finds
a "fundamental reason" in the fact that the Church "influenced
Constantine's decision to make Sunday a day of rest for the whole
empire, and this undoubtedly in order to give to the Lord's day a
preeminent place above the other days." Therefore, Mosna
argues that the Church "can claim the honor of having granted man
a pause to his work every seven days." 12  This explanation
harmonizes we with the traditional claim that Sunday observance
"is purely a creation of the Catholic Church." 13  But if Sunday
rest is an ecclesiastical - imperial institution, how can it be
enjoined upon Christians as a divine precept? What valid ground
can this provide to enable theologians to reassess the meaning
and function of the Lord's day

9 Pope John XXIII (fn. 7), p.76; John A.McHugh and Charles J.
Callan, trans. "Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish
Priests," 1958, p.404: "'Thou shall do no work on it, says the
Lord, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant,
nor thy maid-servant, nor thy beast, nor the stranger that is
within thy gates.' Ex.20:10. These words teach us, in the first
place, to avoid whatever may interfere with the worship of God."
The Catechism continues explaining in the light of the Sabbath
commandment which works are forbidden and which actions
Christians should perform on Sunday.
10 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.298.
11 C.S.Mosna, "Storia delta Domenica," p.367; W.Rordorf,
"Sunday," p.298, shares the same conviction: "Therefore we must
ask whether it would not perhaps be better if we were to refrain,
so far as possible, from basing the hallowing of Sunday on the
Sabbath commandment?" 
12 C.S.Mosna, "Storia della Domenica," pp.366-367.
13 John Gilmary Shea (fn. 7), p.139.

for Christians today? One can hardly hope to cope wth the
widespread profanation of the Lord's day, merely by invoking
ecclesiastical authority without providing an adequate
theological rationale.
     Some argue that a theological justification for Sunday rest
is provided by the demands of worship. C.S Mosna, for instance,
asserts that "an essential theological motivation to support
resting on Sunday is the fact that this is absolutely
indispensable to provide the material time for worship on the
Lord's day and to favor its conditions." 14  That the
of work is a prerequisite to worship, is an axiomatic truth. But
is a Christian to rest on the Lord's day merely to fulfill its
worship obligations? If this were the exclusive reason, then why
insist on the rest from work for the entire day, since the time
spent in actual corporate or private worship amounts at most to
one or two hours? In other words, if the free time that remains
after the Sunday service has no theological significance, one
cannot but question the legitimacy of demanding total rest from
work on Sunday. In view of the fact that idleness is the
beginning of all manner of vices, would it not be more
appropriate after the Sunday service to urge Christians to return
to their respective jobs or to engage in some purposeful
activities? Moreover, if rest is to be taken only to ensure
attendance to the Church service, does not the five-day working
week already provide ample time to fulfill worship obligations,
thus making the notion of Sunday rest altogether irrelevant and
anachronistic to modern man?
     Should we then conclude that Sunday is to be regarded as the
hour of worship rather than the holy day of rest to the Lord?
Apparently it is toward this direction that some Christian
Churches are moving. The Catholic Church, for instance, as
expressed by C.S.Mosna, "is timidly introducing the custom of
hearing the Sunday Mass on Saturday night." 15  Mosna maintains
that "such practice is to be encouraged ... in order to provide
the Sunday blessings to those employees and workers who are not
free because of their working schedule but, who as Christians,
have the right to participate in the Sunday liturgy." 16
     Note however that the possibility of hearing the Sunday

14 C.S.Mosna, "Storia della Domenica," p.367. 
15 Ibid. p.365.
16 Loc. cit.

Mass on Saturday night is extended not only to those Catholics
who on Sunday would be impeded to fulfill the precept by
unavoidable obligations, but also, as explicitly stated by the
Archbishop of Bologna, to "classes of persons such as skiers,
hunters, holidaymakers, tourists, and others, who on festivities
normally leave home at a time when no Mass is celebrated in the
churches, and go to places where churches are either too far or
non-existent." 17
     This extension of the prerogatives of Sunday to Saturday
evening suggests the possibility of further perplexing
     Martino Morganti points out, for instance, that "the
extension is already insufficient to accommodate all, because ...
Saturday evening is already fully week-end and for many the
exodus out of the cities has already begun." 18  Owing to the
constant reduction of the working-week, it seems plausible to
foresee then that in the future the Catholic Church in her desire
to minister to the largest number of vacationers, might
anticipate the Sunday Mass precept even to Friday evening. Some
radical Catholic theologians feel no discomfort with this
development, since they argue, as expressed by Th. Martens that:

     the problem of the "sliding-scivolamento" of Sunday must be

17 "La Civiltd Cattolica" 115 (1964): 511; in the same issue "La
Civiltd Cattolica" reports the communique of the Vatican Radio of
June 12, 1964, where the following motivation is given for
advancing the Sunday Mass to Saturday evening: "Among the
considerations that have motivated this concession, we have taken
into account the great and ever increasing development of the
so-called week-end tourism, and of skiing sports, because the
schedule of departure and return make ever so difficult the
fulfillment of the Festive precept" (p.94). Another reason
mentioned is the scarcity of priests that makes it impossible for
certain areas to have a Sunday Mass. Some Fathers requested
during the Second Vatican Council both to define the holy day on
the basis of the sunset to sunset principle in order to place the
Saturday evening Mass within Sunday legal time and also to allow
Christians prevented from hearing the mass on Sunday to fulfill
the obligation during the week. The Commission on Liturgy gave
"serious consideration - serio considerata est" to the proposal
of advancing the Sunday Mass to Saturday evening, but the
questions of the reckoning of the day and of the make-up of the
Sunday Mass during the week, were referred to post-conciliar
commissions ("Schema Constitutionis de Sacra Liturgia,
Emendationes," IX, 11). Note that in the decree "Orientalium
Ecclesiarum," approved by the Council "it is established that the
proper time for fulfilling the precept is from the sunset of the
eve till the end of Sunday or a feast day" (n. 15).
18 Martino Morganti, "La Messa domenicale anticipata al sabato,"
in "La Domenica," Liturgica-Nuova Serie, 1968, p.217.

     resolved not on the basis of theological, historical or
     traditional principles, but ... on the basis of a pastoral
     judgment that holds together the two extremes: the will of
     Christ and the situation of the present world. It appears to
     us that the Gospel and tradition do not specify the actual
     day of the Lord. 19

     To say the least, this interpretation not only reduces the
obligation of the Lord's day to the attendance of a church
service, but it even advocates the possibility of anticipating it
in order to accommodate the social and recreational priorities of
modern Christians. Does this view of the Lord's day as the hour
of worship reflect correctly the Biblical teaching of the

19 Th. Maertens, "Paroisse et Liturgie" 49 (1967): 193; cf. ibid.
46 (1964): 586; other Catholic theologians do not approve of the
extension of the Sunday Mass to Saturday evening. P.Falsioni,
for instance, has repeatedly denounced this concession as "the
death certificate of Sunday" ("Rivista Pastorale Liturgica"
1967): 311, 229, 97, 98; (1966): 549-551. The validity of the
Sunday Mass precept has been contested in numerous Catholic
studies. Some challenge its Biblical-theological basis; others
its relevancy and the difficulty to reconcile the freedom of
Christian worship with the obligatory nature of the precept;
still others denounce the formalism that the precept generates.
An excellent survey of the various arguments and solutions is
provided by the special issues of "Lumiere et Vie" 58 (1962), and
of "La Maison-Dieu" 83 (1965); cf. ibid. 124 (1975). On the basis
of the distinction made by the Commission on Liturgy of the 11
Vatican Council between the Sunday assembly and the participation
at the Eucharistic celebration, Morganti proposes an interesting
solution. He maintains that the Sunday assembly cannot be
transferred and must take place on Sunday. The believers who for
valid reasons are unable to attend the service can be dispensed
from the assembly but not from the Eucharist. The absentees,
however, can fulfill the latter by participating in a Eucharistic
celebration during the week (fn. 18, pp.223-224). This
development, to say the least, creates a striking dichotomy
between assembly and Eucharist, besides providing a subtle
rationale to justify the absence from the former and the
transference of the obligations of the latter. One wonders, what
is left of the Sunday precept? It is interesting to notice by
way of contrast, that W.Rordorf, a Calvinist, argues that the
Lord's Supper is the very "raison d'etre" of Sunday worship: "If
we do not celebrate any Lord's Supper on Sunday, we have
basically no right to call Sunday the 'Lord's day' (or "dimanche
domenica"), for the very thing which should make it the Lord's
day, namely the Lord's Supper, is lacking" ("Sunday,"
pp.305-306). Rordorf's argument derives from his contention that
the Lord's Supper was initially celebrated exclusively on Sunday
and thus it was the core of Sunday worship. While it is true that
the Eucharist later became the essence of Sunday worship, we have
shown that this was not the case in New Testament times. The rite
was then celebrated at indeterminate times and apparently within
the context of a supper meal.

sanctification of the Sabbath, accomplished by renouncing the
utilitarian use of its time? Hardly so. But, should Sunday be
viewed differently, namely as the embodiment of the theology and
obligations of the Biblical Sabbath? In the light of our
investigation into the historical genesis and initial theological
basis of Sunday observance, we must reply, "No." We have shown
that Sunday arose not as a divine precept demanding the
sanctification of time, but as an ecclesiastical institution
designed to force a differentiation from Jewish Sabbath-keeping.
The very primitive theology of Sunday did not require total rest
from work on Sunday. As stated by W.Rordorf, "until well into
the second century we do not find the slightest indication in our
sources that Christians marked Sunday by any kind of abstention
from work." 17  The resurrection of Christ, which in time became
the dominant reason for Sunday observance, initially was
commemorated by a common gathering for worship (Justin, "I
Apology" 67) and not by a whole day of rest.

     Should not, however, the commemoration of Christ's
resurrection constitute a valid justification for consecrating
Sunday time to the service of God and of mankind? While this may
appear as a worthy motivation, nevertheless it does rest entirely
on a subjective interpretation. By virtue of the same reasoning
one could defend the worthiness of Thursday, Friday or Saturday
as days of rest, since on these days occurred respectively
Christ's betrayal, death and burial. But where is it stated that
those days associated with significant events of Christ's life
are to be observed weekly by abstaining from work? We have shown,
for instance, that though Christ's resurrection is greatly
exalted in the New Testament, there is no hint suggesting that
the event is to be commemorated at a specific time. The very
Lord's Supper, which in time became the essence of Sunday
worship, initially was celebrated at indeterminate times and
commemorated Christ's death and parousia rather than His
resurrection. According to Pauline teaching, the believer is to
honor Christ's resurrection existentially, namely by walking
after baptism "in newness of life" (Rom.6:4; Col.2:12-13).
     When later the resurrection became the predominant reason
for Sunday observance, even then no attempt was made to make this
event the theological basis for total rest on that day. On the
contrary, an appeal was made to the Sabbath commandment. Ephraem
Syrus (ca. A.D 350), to cite an example, urges

17 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.157; see above fn. 5.

Christians to rest on Sunday by invoking the Sabbath commandment:
"The law ordains that rest be granted to slaves and animals, in
order that slaves, serving girls and workers may cease from
work." 18  The law to which Ephraem refers is obviously that of
the Sabbath, since prior to Emperor Leo the Thracian (A.D.
457-474) no imperial law proscribed agricultural work on Sunday.
     The fact that Sunday became a day of rest not by virtue of
its historical genesis or theological meaning but rather by
absorbing gradually the prerogatives of the Sabbath, makes it
virtually impossible to construct a valid theological basis to
enjoin rest on Sunday. Some may wish to solve this dilemma by
altogether divorcing rest from worship, thus retaining Sunday
exclusively as the hour of worship. W.Rordorf, who leans toward
this solution, asks "whether it is, in fact, an ideal solution
for the day of rest and the day of worship to coincide." 20  He
prefers to assign to Sunday an exclusive worship function which
finds its fulfillment when the community gathers together to
partake of the Lord's Supper and to hear the preaching of God's
Word. Having fulfilled their worship obligations, Christians
should feel free to spend the rest of the day engaged in any type
of work or legitimate activity.
     Does this proposal contribute to solving or to compounding
the problems associated with Sunday observance in our time? Does
not this provide Christians with a rational justification for
spending most of their Sunday time either in making money or in
seeking pleasure? Is this what Sunday observance is all about? To
divorce worship from rest, regarding the latter as non-essential
to Sunday observance, it means to misunderstand the meaning of
the Biblical commandment which ordains the consecration not of a
weekly hour of worship but of a whole day of interruption of work
out of respect for God. Undoubtedly for some Christians the
reduction of Sunday observance to an hour of worship is
unacceptable, but our study has shown that both the historical
genesis and the theological basis of Sunday observance offer
little help to encourage the consecration of the "total" Sunday
time to the Lord.

18 Ephraem Syrus, "Hymni et sermones," ed. T.J.Lamy, T, 1882, pp.
543-544; for other references, see above fn. 5.
19 Leo the Thracian justifies the prohibition of agricultural
work on Sunday by appealing to the Jewish hallowing of the
Sabbath. Cf. T. Zahn, Geschichte des Sonntag, 1878, p.77, fn.
20 W.Rordorf, "Sunday," p.299.

     Is there a way out of this predicament? The proposal which
we are about to submit may at first appear radical to some, but
if it were accepted by Christians at large it could indeed
revitalize both the worship and the rest content of the Lord's
day. Since our study has shown that Sunday observance lacks the
Biblical authority and the theological basis necessary to justify
the total consecration of its time to the Lord, we believe that
such an objective can be more readily achieved by educating our
Christian communities to understand and experience the Biblical
and apostolic meaning and obligation of the seventh-day Sabbath.
We are not here proposing to reproduce "sic et simpliciter" the
rabbinical model of Sabbath-keeping which the Lord Himself
rejected, but rather to rediscover and restore those permanent
interpretative categories which make the Sabbath, God's holy day
for the Christian today.
     We cannot here survey the theological thematic development
of the Sabbath in redemptive history and its relevancy for the
Christian today. The most we can do in our closing remarks is to
emphasize the basic difference between Sabbath and Sunday. While
the aim of the latter, as we have seen, is the fulfillment of a
worship obligation, the objective of the former is the
sanctification of time. The main concern and obligation of the
Sabbath commandment is for man to rest on this day (Ex.20:10;
34:21). What is involved in the Sabbath rest? If it were only
inactivity or abstention from work, we would question the value
of such benefit. Is there anything more depressing than having
nothing to do, waiting for the Sabbath hours to pass away in
order to resume some meaningful activity?
     In the Sabbath commandment, however, "rest" is qualified. It
is defined not as a frivolous good time, but as a "solemn rest,
holy to the lord" (Ex.31:15; 16:23, 25; 35:2; Lev.23:3). Though
the Sabbath is given to mankind (Ex.16:29; 31:14; Mark 2:27),
nevertheless it belongs to Yahweh (Ex.16:23, 25; 20:10; 31:15;
Lev.23:3). Repeatedly God calls the day "my Sabbaths," 21
undoubtedly because He "rested ... blessed ... and hallowed it"
(Gen.2:2-3). This particular manifestation of the presence and
blessings of God constitutes the ground and essence of the
holiness of the Sabbath. The rest of the Sabbath is then not
self-centered relaxation - a time when all wishes

21 Ex.31:13; Lev.19:3,30;  Is.56:4; 58:13; Ez.20:12;
22:26; 23:38; 44:24; Neh.9:14.

and desires can be fulfilled without restraint-, but rather a
divinely-centered rest - a time when a person is freed from the
care of work, to become free for God and fellow-beings and thus
finds genuine refreshment in this freedom.
     The physical relaxation which the rest of the Sabbath
provides may be regarded as the preliminary preparation necessary
to experience the totality of the divine blessings of creation
redemption which the day commemorates. The themes of the Sabbath
spell out and encompass the unfolding of the "Historia salutis"
(redemptive history): creation (Gen.2:2-3; Ex.20:11; 31:17),
liberation (Deut.5:15; 15:12-18; Lev.25:2-54), covenant
consecration (Ex.31:13,14,17; Ez.20:20), redemption
(Luke 4:18-21; 13:12,16; John 5:17; 7:23; Matt.11:28; 12:5-6;
Heb.4:2,3,7) and eschatological restoration (Is.66:23; Heb.
4:11). By evoking and commemorating God's saving activities, the
Sabbath provides the believer with a concrete opportunity to
accept and experience the total blessings of salvation. The
believer who interrupts his daily routine and dedicates 24 hours
to his Creator and Redeemer, as K.Barth puts it, "participates
consciously in the salvation provided by Him [God]." 22  In other
words, the stopping of one's doing on the Sabbath represents the
experience of being saved by God's grace. It is an expression of
renunciation to human attempts to work out one's salvation and an
acknowledgment of God as the author and finisher of our
salvation. 23
     Chrysostom rebuked the Christians of his day, saying: "You
appropriate for yourselves this day, sanctified and consecrated
to the listening of spiritual discourses, for the benefit of your
secular concerns." 24   Such warning is particularly applicable
today, when Christians, owing to the greater availability of time
and money, are tempted to question the sacredness of the Sabbath
commandment and endeavor to rationalize away its obligations. In
our consumer society where time has become a good that many use
exclusively for selfish gratification; a rediscovery of the
obligations and blessings of Sabbath-keeping could act

22 K. Barth, "Church Dogmaticis," 1961, III, p.50.
23 Calvin emphasizes this meaning of the Sabbath rest, saying
"Under the rest of the seventh day, the divine Law giver meant to
furnish the people of Israel with a type of the spiritual rest by
which the believers were to cease from their works and allow God
to work in them. . . . We must rest entirely in order that God
may work in us (Institutes, 1972, II, pp. 339-340).
24 Chrysostom, "De baptismo Christi homilia" 1, Pa 49, 364.

as a brake or a dike against that insatiable greediness and
selfishness of modern humans. The Christian who on the Sabbath
day is able to detach himself from his work and concerns,
dedicating the day to the glory of God and to the service of his
fellow beings, demonstrates in a tangible way how divine grace
has delivered him from his self-centeredness and has enabled him
genuinely to love God and people.
     Resting on the Sabbath is an expression of our complete
commitment to God. Our life is a measure of time and the way we
spend it is indicative of where our interests lie. We have no
time for those toward whom we feel indifferent, but we make time
for those whom we love. To be able to withdraw on the seventh day
from the world of things to meet the invisible God in the quiet
of our souls, means to love God totally. "For the Jews," as well
expressed by P.Massi, "rest was an act of worship, a type of
liturgy. This enables us to understand why a series of
ritualistic prescriptions were developed to regulate the liturgy
of rest." 25  A.M.Dubarle points out that while the offering of
the first-fruits or firstborn animals had the effect of freeing
all the rest after that for secular use, in the case of time the
situation was the opposite: "The offering of time, accomplished
on the last day of the week, and not on the first as was the case
in the offering of the material goods, had the effect of
consecrating the whole time, inasmuch as it tended toward the day
of meeting with God."

     What does the consecration of the Sabbath time to God
actually involve? A superficial reading of the rabbinical
restrictions prevailing at the time of Christ may give the
impression that the Sabbath was a day of rigorous inactivity. The
pious Jews, however, dedicated their Sabbath time to study,
prayer, meditation, and acts of mercy. Religious services were
conducted in the synagogue on Friday evening, Sabbath morning,
and Sabbath afternoon, for the reading of the law and of the
prophets, and for their exposition. We have found, moreover, that
Christ provides the supreme example of how to consecrate the
Sabbath time to God. He used the Sabbath time to listen to and to
proclaim the word of God: "He went to the synagogue, as his
custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read. . . . He
was teaching them on the Sabbath; and they were astonished at his
teachings" (Luke 4:16,

25 P.Massi, "La Domenica," 1967, p.366.
26 A.M.Dubarle, "La Signification religieuse du sabbat dans la
Bible," "Le Dimanche," Lex Orandi 39, 1965, p.52.

31, 32; cf. 13:10). Furthermore, we noticed that Jesus
intensified on the Sabbath His redemptive ministry on behalf of
man's physical and spiritual needs, in order to make the day the
fitting memorial of the salvation-rest available to all that come
to Him (Matt.11:28). 

     According to the example of Jesus, then, the Sabbath for the
Christian today is a time to experience the blessings of
salvation by worshiping God and by providing the warmth of
fellowship and service to needy fellow beings.
     Sabbath observance in this cosmic age can well be for modern
man the fitting expression of a cosmic faith, a faith which
embraces and unites creation, redemption and final restoration;
the past, the present and the future; man, nature and God; this
world and the world to come; a faith that recognizes God's
dominion over the whole creation and over human life by
consecrating to Him a portion of time; a faith that fulfills the
believer's true destiny in time and eternity; a faith that would
treat the Lord's day as God's "holy day" rather than as a


To be continued with: Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi's explanation of
Col.2:14-17; Gal.4:8-11; Rom.14:5-6.

Entered on this Website June 2009

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