Exactly how serious is this Sunday obligation?
The Third Paschal Sunday, known as The Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women.
The Memory of the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus.
Return to ByzantineCatholicPriest.com.
12:36 PM 5/8/2011 — 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, 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 worshipped 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 it is called, 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.”
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. And that, more than anything else, was my motive for choosing the theme for this summer’s preaching series.
As you know, most summers, beginning on the Sunday after Pentecost, I choose a particular theme for the homilies of the summer months. The last time we did a series on the Divine Liturgy was in 2005; and it’s time to revisit that topic, not only because it’s been so long, but also to help us reinforce and reevaluate our relationship with the Lord’s Day. The Sunday Liturgy—whether it’s on Sunday or Saturday evening—is not something we fit in when we have time; and, if it has become that, perhaps it’s because we haven’t considered it carefully enough. When I turn around from the Holy Table to give a blessing, and see people making no attempt to sing, or making a cross in a perfunctory manner (or not making it at all), and no one at all making any attempt to bow at the required times, I know it’s my own fault for not having instructed you often or well enough. But the main thing that concerns me is the possibility that we have simply forgotten the deep spiritual significance of the things we do in church. We cannot be here simply to fulfill an obligation. We have to be here because we want to be; and how can we want to be if we don’t understand what we’re doing or why?
Now, we have a few Sundays before Pentecost; so, our series on the Divine Liturgy won’t begin for a while; but I wanted to let you know it was coming. In the mean time, at least we can contemplate the hidden significance of the visit of the holy women to the tomb of our Lord on the first day of the week, how that event shaped the life of the Church for generations, and how we can begin to reconnect with the ancient faith we have inherited from them.
Father Michael Venditti