Recently, Pope Francis spoke about the need to keep Sunday holy, as the day of the Lord. His words inspired me to reread “Dies Domini” (The Lord’s Day), an apostolic letter that St. John Paul II wrote on the subject in 1998. Not that widely known or read, “Dies Domini” nevertheless stands as a gem in the remarkable corpus of John Paul II’s thought and writing.
As a day set apart, Sunday reminds us that, in Genesis, the Lord rested on the seventh day from the work of creation, not because he was tired, but in order to lovingly contemplate what he had wrought into being.
This weekly rest from work and regular activity reminds us of our fundamental identity as children of God, our need to worship him, the necessity of relationships with the Lord, our family, friends and even ourselves.
Especially needed since the Industrial Revolution, holy leisure stretches and fills out our humanity, reminding us we are more than workers, cogs in the machine. Sunday celebrated well allows us to be, to worship, to contemplate, to pray and to play.
The early Christians shifted the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday because Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. Those first believers, all Jewish, saw their faith in Christ as the fulfillment of their Judaism, so they worshiped in the synagogue on Saturday and celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the cornerstone and foundation of our Catholic faith. Easter is so important that we celebrate it every Sunday, as the first day of the week. The church has never gotten over the wonder, surprise and joy of Christ’s triumph over the powerful forces of sin and death, so we gather every week to give thanks and praise to God in the Eucharist for this saving gift.
St. John Paul makes the interesting point in his letter that Christians can look at Sunday as the eighth day of the week; if Saturday was the seventh day, the Sabbath for the Jewish people, then Jesus actually arose on the eighth day. The early Church Fathers perceived this numerology to represent eternity.
Jesus rises from the dead in a historical moment in time, but his Resurrection is a supernatural event that draws us beyond time and space into the eternal and timeless love of the Father.
Our earthly liturgy is a participation in the heavenly one. In the Eucharist, we step out of the chronological unfolding of historical time and enter into God’s activity of love and contemplation. Sunday points us beyond the mundane things that too often capture our full attention and energy, and toward what really and forever matters: our life with God.
The pope laments what has happened to Sunday in many Western countries. Entertaining escape from work and life has replaced holy leisure; Sunday has become just another day to get stuff done; sports, coffee at Starbucks and sleeping in have replaced weekly Eucharistic worship.
In our secular culture, many people see no need to break out of their earthly routine and love, worship and contemplate the One who creates, saves and sanctifies us. Conversely, the pope lifts up the beautiful example of Catholics in developing countries who often truly celebrate Sunday with festive Masses, processions, family and community gatherings with food, music and dancing. Sunday Masses in Africa can often last for three hours!
So, how can we reclaim Sunday as a day of worship, praise, rest and relationship? Make Sunday Mass an absolute priority – no exceptions or excuses. Plan your weekend accordingly with the Eucharist at the center. Try to refrain from as much work and regular activity as you can on Sunday.
Plan an outing, a game, a nap, reading a good book, spending time with family and friends. Reclaim the great tradition of Sunday dinner as a festive occasion. Spend some extra time in prayer. Let Sunday be a day out of the ordinary routine that renews and reorients us to the great mystery of God, the Resurrection of Christ and our own redeemed humanity.
Our growth as disciples of the Lord Jesus depends in a significant way on how we embrace Sunday as the day of the Lord.
Just think: God gives us 168 hours of life a week and asks us to spend just one of those hours with him and his church in praise and thanksgiving. That is really not too much to ask.
In many ways, the life of heaven will be like our experience of the Eucharist — gathered in the presence of the Lord as his people, praising and loving him. If we do not want to spend time with the Lord now, here on earth, how will we want to do it for all eternity? Mass forms our hearts and lives for the glorious experience of eternity.
John Paul writes: “For the Christian, Sunday is above all an Easter celebration, wholly illuminated by the glory of the Risen Christ. It is the festival of the new creation.”