Keeping the Lord's Day Isn't Just an Arbitrary Rule; It's a Commandment.
The Sunday of the Ointment-Bearing Women.
Our Holy Father & Confessor Martin, Pope of Rome.
The Holy New Martyrs Anthony, John & Eustathius.
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6:54 PM 4/14/2013 — As you know, my physical limitations make it difficult for me to get away from the parish often—though I will be away from the parish for most of the month of July this year;—but, I did muster the effort to attend a seminar for priests recently on the subject of preaching. I made the effort to go because one of the presentations was on the preaching of Pope-Emeritus Benedict, whom you know I revere very highly; and, it was given by a priest who was converted to the Catholic Faith in Germany when Pope Benedict was a university professor there, and who heard him preach as a young priest many times. Another of the presentations was on the preaching of Blessed John Henry Newman, to whom you know I have special devotion, since I've quoted him to you often enough.
Among the other topics covered was the question of whether a preacher should use notes when preaching. You can obviously see what my opinion is on the topic, as I never preach without my homily written out in front of me; I could hide it when I was preaching from the pulpit; but, since I have to preach seated now, it's impossible to disguise. If you ever are inclined to visit my personal web site where these homilies are available after every Sunday, and which is linked from our parish web site, you'll see an essay there about preaching in the Byzantine Tradition, which makes clear my position on the subject. Another question raised was whether there's a need for the preacher to ever repeat himself. This question is different for priests who are pastors of parishes than it is for priests who are only assistants, since there are some things about which a conscientious pastor needs to remind the souls entrusted to his care. This Sunday, the Sunday of the Ointment-bearers, is one of those—at least I've used it to speak about today's topic the last couple of years now.
From a purely historical point of view we know why these women go to the tomb: the Jewish burial ritual is a lengthy one: the body must be anointed with perfumed oils; but, since Jesus died in the afternoon, and the Sabbath was beginning, there was no time for this. So, on Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn, these three women, who had cared for our Lord’s simple needs in life, went to the tomb to provide just one more service for him in death.
There are, of course, implications both theological and spiritual to the fact that these women, and not the Apostles, are the first to see the Risen Lord, and we’ve talked about those in past years. There are other spiritual lessons as well which we can derive from the most arcane details: the miraculous rolling away of the stone; the angel dressed in white; the fact that the women do not come to the tomb empty-handed; the fact that they do not, at first, recognize our Lord. All of these have significance, but we focus today on only one: the fact that all of it happens on a Sunday.
Before our Lord’s Passion, his followers kept the same Sabbath as all the other Jews around them: beginning Friday at sundown and ending Saturday at sundown. The tradition comes from God himself, as spoken to the Hebrew people through Moses: “Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” But almost immediately after our Lord’s resurrection, the Christians began to keep another day, and this passage we just read is the reason. Jesus rises from the dead on a Sunday. His resurrection is witnessed by these three women at daybreak, just as the sun itself is rising in the East. And it was almost immediate that the Apostles and their disciples began to refer to Sunday as the “new Sabbath”; and, to this day, when a Christian examines his conscience in preparation for confession, when he gets to the Third Commandment, he understands it to mean that he should keep holy the “Lord’s Day,” meaning Sunday.
It’s also important to note the parallel the early Christians made between the rising of Christ from the dead and the time of day at which it happened: just as the sun was rising in the East; hence, the earliest manuscripts we have which describe how the first Christians worshiped show them performing the Lord’s Supper on an altar which faces the East, as they themselves faced the East; and they did this, as far as possible, just as the sun was rising, because they saw in the rising sun a symbol of our Lord’s resurrection.
To this day, our churches, whenever possible, face the East; and, when it’s not possible for a church to face East, we pretend that it does, with all of us, priest and congregation, facing the same way as well, as if to see, in the rising sun, our risen Lord. The spiritual implications are unmistakable: Jesus is the rising Sun which should light our day from its first moments. The whole day becomes different when it is illumined by the Lord.
Unfortunately, like all of the most ancient traditions of the Church, it’s old and easily becomes passé in the minds of Christians. The “Sunday obligation,” as we have come to call it, becomes nothing more than something we were taught in our catechism; just another rule that we’re supposed to obey, and confess when we don’t. And when something is viewed as nothing more than a rule to be followed for its own sake, the motivation for following it becomes pretty weak—as do the excuses we grant ourselves for ignoring it from time to time: “It’s the first day of Spring.” “It’s the last day of Summer.” “It’s a long weekend and I’ve got a chance to get away.” “It's raining outside so I don't want to drive.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to remember what many of the early Christians went through in their efforts to keep the Lord’s Day: steeling away to underground caverns in cemeteries, or hidden away cellars in the homes of wealthy Christians, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper—the Divine Liturgy, as they began to call it—during times of violence against the Church, endangering—and sometimes giving—their lives for the privilege. For them, the motivation was not a rule they had to follow or an obligation they would have to confess if they didn’t; it was the promise of receiving into themselves the Body and Blood—the Soul and Divinity—of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. They did not—and could not—see it as a burden.
If we have come to see it that way—as a burden—it’s because, somewhere along the way, we’ve lost our connection with those earliest Christians who handed these traditions on to us down through the centuries. Reconnecting with them—and to the traditions of our faith—is something that can only be done by each one of us in our own hearts.
Here's an exercise that might help to clarify our minds on the issue: next time to you get up on Sunday morning to come to church, ask yourself why. Is it because it's an obligation you need to fulfill or else you'll feel guilty? Or is it for the reason that the women in today's Gospel went to the tomb on the first day of the week: because they loved our Lord?