Since apostolic times, Christians have worshipped together each Sunday, on the Lord’s Day. Christ came to fulfill all the law and prophets, not abolish them:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
A Lost Distinction
We as Christians observe the Third Commandment by participating in the Eucharistic Sacrifice on the Lord’s Day each week. However, some Christians have put forth the thought that Christians should observe the Jewish Sabbath, on Saturday. Probably the most well known of these would be the Seventh-Day Adventists. On their official website, they state the following:
“In most every country of the world, most Christian people go to church on Sunday, believing that Sunday, not Saturday, is the Sabbath day, or at least the day now recognized as special in the New Testament. We humbly suggest, though, that this is another case of the majority getting it wrong.
“The New Testament never talks about the Sabbath as anything other than Saturday, the seventh day, as seen in … Exodus 20:8-11.”
They are correct that most Christians believe the Sabbath day is now on Sunday instead of Saturday. This was my understanding also until somewhat recently. What many Christians don’t realize is that the Sabbath Day and the Lord’s Day are distinct from one another. It would appear this group has lost this distinction as well, albeit in a much more profound way.
He Has Risen
Groups like the Adventists mistakenly believe that the Sabbath was changed or abolished, but both of those words miss the mark. Instead, we now see the Lord’s Day as the eighth day, the fulfillment of the Sabbath day and of the old creation. As Christians have understood for centuries, we observe the Third Commandment’s precept on the day of the New Creation, not the old. Upon studying the wisdom of the Church’s Magisterium, and that of the early Church Fathers, this distinction should become much clearer, enabling us to understand that the proper day for worship and rest is indeed Sunday as opposed to Saturday.
Probably the best place to start in all this is to see what the earliest Christians experienced. It’s difficult to get much earlier than people like St. Mary Magdalene. We get an in-depth look at what she encountered on that first Lord’s Day in the Gospel of St. Matthew:
“Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Mag′dalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it … the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said’” (Matthew 22:1-2, 5-6).
Glorification of Jesus
The Gospel of St. John uses similar language saying that “on the first day of the week Mary Mag′dalene came to the tomb early” (John 20:1). St. John fills in more of this event (see John 20:14-18) with the resurrected Jesus appearing before her. Notice that the Sabbath here is distinct from the “first day of the week”.
Jesus does not rise from the dead on the Sabbath, but instead on the first day of the week, what we now call the Lord’s Day. Jesus did exactly what he said he’d do: by rising from the dead he has brought all things to fulfillment. The Resurrection, although it happens after the Sabbath day, does not abolish it, but recapitulates the very substance of the Sabbath. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it most succinctly:
“The sabbath, which represented the completion of the first creation, has been replaced by Sunday which recalls the new creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ. The Church celebrates the day of Christ’s Resurrection on the ‘eighth day,’ Sunday, which is rightly called the Lord’s Day” (CCC 2090-2091).
This notion of the Resurrection of the “eighth day” is very ancient. In the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Church affirms:
“By a tradition handed down from the apostles which took its origin from the very day of Christ’s resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day; with good reason this, then, bears the name of the Lord’s day or Sunday. For on this day Christ’s faithful are bound to come together into one place so that; by hearing the word of God and taking part in the eucharist, they may call to mind the passion, the resurrection and the glorification of the Lord Jesus…” (SC 106).
The First of All Days
In the year 74, in a letter attributed to St. Barnabas, the very companion of St. Paul the Apostle, we get a great glimpse into that apostolic tradition that the Second Vatican Council speaks of. The author explains that Jesus “make[s] a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead” (Letter of Barnabas, 15).
This is very important to our understanding of the significance of each Sunday. By our baptism, we became new creations in Christ. We died to our sins with Christ, we were buried with Christ, and then we were made anew and reborn in Christ. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we no longer follow the ways of life that we did before our re-creation. We turn away from sin and from what will not effect our continuing salvation. This was all effected by our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection.
None of this would’ve been possible without his sacrifice and glorious resurrection. So in the same way, we no longer follow the specific prescriptions of the old way of life of the Old Testament. We now see things in a new light, that is, the Light of Christ. This resurrection of his recalls that first creation that we see in the Book of Genesis. As we saw above, Scripture records that day as being the “first day of the week”, which also means it is the eighth day after the Sabbath, symbolizing “the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day (he kuriake hemera, dies dominica) Sunday” (CCC 2174).
The Command of the Old Covenant
It’s so important to remember that distinction between what God has abolished and what he has fulfilled. This very distinction is what is lost on those like the Seventh-Day Adventists who see it as necessary to observe the Sabbath, even though we have something much greater with the Lord’s Day each Sunday.
Think about it. Even today Jewish people are still celebrating the Sabbath. The Sabbath hasn’t gone anywhere, it hasn’t been abolished or eradicated, but it has been fulfilled. It has now been replaced by something that ties everything together from salvation history; from the animal sacrifices offered, especially on the Passover, to the very priesthood itself. All has been brought to completion by Jesus. We as Christians can’t be looking over our shoulder, so to speak. The “ceremonial observance” of the Sabbath now takes place on Sunday. The Catechism expounds on this, while also quoting St. Ignatius of Antioch:
“Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ:
[St. Ignatius says that] ‘Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death.’
“Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people” (CCC 2175, 2176).
The Eight-Sided Baptistry
This idea of recapitulation is central to the Christian life. This is why, to paraphrase the Church Fathers, what is found in the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament, and what is found in the New Testament is prefigured in the Old Testament. Everything is intimately linked, as God is the author of all that is revealed throughout Sacred Scripture.
To give just one example, while staying on this track of the “new creation” and the “eighth day”, I encourage you to walk into the baptistery at any classically constructed church building, and perhaps even some newer ones. Take a look at the baptismal font, or try to envision the one found in your own parish. Can you take a guess as to how many sides that baptismal font has? If you guessed eight, you’re absolutely correct. Recall that circumcision was done eight days after birth under the Old Covenant. Scripture tells us our rebirth in the sacrament of baptism is “a circumcision made without hands … the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11).
Naturally, baptismal fonts (and sometimes even the entire baptistery) were constructed with eight sides. Dr. Denis McNamara goes a bit more in depth, so as to bring it all together:
“[T]he octagon has taken precedence from the list of possible shapes, likely because of the symbolism of the number eight and its association with the theological ‘eighth day.’ Genesis speaks of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, and so the ‘eighth day’ is the metaphorical day of eternity as the day ‘after’ the earthly sabbath, a day of re-creation into eschatological completion … Since baptism is the door to this new life, the eight-sided baptistery takes on a symbolic significance particularly appropriate to the sacrament’s effect.”
Consecration through Resurrection
Regrettably, these observations and ancient Christian practices are lost on those like the Adventists that advocate for a return to observing the Third Commandment’s precept on Saturday. But thankfully, in our rich Catholic faith that had been handed on down to us from the Apostles themselves, we have not lost sight of this deep symbolism. Although we may have be confused at times as to what the Sabbath was in relation to the Lord’s Day, we live in an age where we can quickly digest the wisdom of the great saints, the Magisterium, and the Sacred Tradition of the Church.
Hopefully this has demonstrated why we now gather together in our churches each Sunday for the Eucharist as opposed to Saturday. It all goes back to what our Lord Jesus brought to fulfillment: the original creation of the heavens and the earth to the new creation. As the Catechism wisely notes:
“The first creation finds its meaning and its summit in the new creation in Christ, the splendor of which surpasses that of the first creation” (CCC 349).
In closing, as we call this to mind each Sunday we worship at Mass, we can also reflect on the words of St. Augustine:
“When the Lord rose from the dead, he put off the mortality of the flesh; his risen body was still the same body, but it was no longer subject to death. By his resurrection he consecrated Sunday, or the Lord’s day. Though the third after his passion, this day is the eighth after the Sabbath, and thus also the first day of the week.”
How can our intentional worship on Sundays help us better understand salvation history and God’s love for us? Share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of the page.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.