From the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day

The last two Sundays I have been writing about the meaning of God’s rest on the seventh day and the sanctification of the seventh day. All this leads now to a question: God commanded, Remember to keep holy the sabbath day … In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. (Ex 20:8,11) Why, then, do Christians observe Sunday, the first day of the week, as “the Lord’s Day”, and not the Sabbath, which falls on Saturday?

Actually, except for the Seventh Day Adventists, this is a big problem for Protestants, who rely on Scripture alone.

In the Gospels, we learn that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, Sunday. Apart from that there are two significant mentions of the first day of the week and one of “the Lord’s Day”.

In Acts (20:7-12) we learn about St. Paul meeting with the faithful of Troas for ‘the breaking of the bread’, probably the celebration of the Eucharist, on the first day of the week.

In 1 Corinthians (16:2) St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about taking up a collection for the poor of Jerusalem on the first day of the week.

In the book of Revelation, we learn that the seer, John, has his vision that gives rise to the book when he was caught up in the spirit on the Lord’s day. (Rev 1:10)

All this tells us that the Lord’s Day seems to be becoming something special in the early Church, but it hardly amounts to a clear command to observe the Lord’s Day in place of the Sabbath. Indeed, when St. Paul gives the Corinthians instructions regarding the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, he makes no mention of any special day of the week.

Outside of Scripture, the practice of the Church quickly becomes clear. One ancient 1st century writing the Didache, tells us: “Every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” (Didache 14)

St. Justin Martyr, writing in about 155 AD, gave us the most ancient description of the eucharistic celebration. He writes, “On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in city or country gather in the same place.” (Apol. 1,67 cited in CCC 1345)

In brief, the celebration of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, in place of the Sabbath, is a practice that comes to us from Sacred Tradition. Scripture bears witness to the tradition that had already begun with the Apostles, before ever any word of the New Testament was written down. (cf. CCC 1166)

Now, as for the meaning of the Lord’s Day we need to recall that it is the first day of a new week.
Let me recall something I wrote last week: “The Body of Christ, crucified and risen, is the beginning of the new creation, the new temple, not made by human hands (cf. Dn 2:34-35, 44-45; Mk 14:58; Jn 2:19), and also the new sacrifice, offered by the new high priest, Jesus Christ, who offers himself upon the Cross and continues to offer himself through the hands of his ministers in the Holy Eucharist.”

The original creation described in the account of the seven days, was marred by sin. It failed to achieve its purpose in the seventh day. It failed to keep God’s name holy. It failed to offer him worthy sacrifice. It failed because Adam, the high priest of creation, of nature, rebelled against God.

Christ’s resurrection in the beginning of a new creation, freed from sin and death. The original creation will now only achieve its purpose after Christ returns in judgement and the dead are raised, the world is transformed, and all things are made new.

Were we to continue to celebrate the Sabbath; we would be denying the work of redemption accomplished by Christ; we would be denying the resurrection; we would be denying the new creation; we would still find ourselves in the bondage of the fallen creation.

The Lord’s Day, or Sunday, is the first day of the week, but it is the first day of a new week. It is the eighth day, the day of the new creation, the day of the resurrection. We no longer celebrate the first creation, but we celebrate the new creation in Christ. This is the meaning of an expression found in that ancient Christian writing already mentioned, the Didache: “Let grace come. Let this world pass away.” (Didache 10)

On the Lord’s Day, we do not just look back to Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we look forward to our own bodily resurrection.

Still, with the transference of the Sabbath to the Lord’s day, we need to remember that Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. (cf. Mt 5:17) He did this in a special way by completing the work of redemption when he died on the Cross on the sixth day, declaring, It is finished. (Jn 19:30) Then he fulfilled the Sabbath by resting in the tomb. Only then did he inaugurate the new creation on the eighth day, the first day of the new week.

While Jesus rested in the tomb, the light of faith in the resurrection, in the new creation, shone in the Virgin Mary. That is why now Saturday belongs in a special way to her; it is her day.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.