When is Sunday?

By The Rev. Armand E. Larive

[Exodus 20:10-11, Deuteronomy 5:15, Luke 6:6-10, John 5:2-17, Mark 4:26-29, 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, 9, Matthew 11:28.]

The Jews are right, of course, that the Sabbath is on Saturday, or more accurately, runs from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.   That’s when the biblical seventh day of the week is placed with respect to the commandment that reads:

“You have six days to do your labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you shall not do any work. . . for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth . . . and on the seventh day he rested.” (Ex. 20:10-11).

Thus, the Sabbath is a commemoration of creation, but it is also a celebration of freedom as marked by the exodus from Egypt:

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and for that reason the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

It is “holy” for these reasons, and the commandment is to keep it holy.   It, thereby, becomes the principal day of worship for the Jews, a day of commemoration and thanksgiving.

We have all heard of the many strictures against work on the Sabbath that are placed on observant Jews.  I think, for example, of Joe Lieberman, Senator from Connecticut, who never rides in a car on the Sabbath because combustion engines and electricity are forms of work.  Such a thing may seem silly to us, but at the same time I feel compelled to admire the witness he makes to his faith and the way Sabbath restrictions demonstrate freedom from going to his office, and a trust that his many responsibilities will not fall apart because he takes a day away from them.  Rather than distract him, I am persuaded that the Sabbath sustains him.

I mention these things because we Christians should bear in mind how much of the meaning of the Sabbath comes out of a rich Jewish tradition.   Indeed, it was not until the 4th century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine that Sunday rather than Saturday was designated as Sabbath.  The same notion of rest was brought along, but the day was changed to the first day of the week because—more than the exodus–Christians wanted to commemorate the resurrection as their galvanizing point of identity and freedom.  We keep the Sabbath holy by our worship and as a day of rest.

But, keeping it holy and a day of rest has a deeper meaning. I wish to investigate by looking at a confusion we have over the when of Sunday, because our culture has led us to become unsure of whether Sunday is the first day of the week (as we are taught by commemorating the resurrection), or the last day, the culminating day when we rest from our labors.

Working people assume Sunday is the last day because Monday is the standard day for going back to work, and therefore, the standard day for the beginning of the week, while Sunday is the day of rest.  There is a blues song in black culture that reflects this view:

“They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad.

Wednesday’s worse, and Thursday’s also sad.

The eagle flies on Friday and Saturday I go out and play

Sunday I go to church, then I kneel down and pray.”

 

A black historian once remarked, rather cynically, that Christianity had a stronger meaning for black people than for whites.

“Our religion had to mean more to us . . . because when Monday came, it was back out into the fields, or back to the janitor’s job, or back to Miss Ann’s kitchen scrubbing the floor.” [1]

The old Protestant work ethic, if it means anything at all, is a strong WASPish (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) conviction that any rest you take must be earned.  You should not feel entitled to rest unless you deserve to rest.   We even go so far as to speak of death and burial by saying that so-and-so has “entered into his rest.”  As in the case of the old poem:

“Solomon Gundy/ Born on Monday/ Christened on Tuesday/ Married on Wednesday/   Took ill on Thursday/ Worse on Friday/ Died on Saturday/ Buried on Sunday.”

…obviously there is no thought at all here of Sunday as the day of resurrection.

So when we fall into the common habit of thinking that Sunday is the last day of the week, and Monday the first day of the week, we are assuming that rest is defined in terms of work.  Such a view seems entirely laudable and perfectly in line with what we’d consider a “good work ethic;” but it is not a Christian work ethic.  For Christians, Sunday must be the first day of the week.  Here’s why.

In the second chapter of Mark we find Jesus and his disciples picking and eating ears of corn, an act of work in violation with Sabbath rules.  When so accused, Jesus cites David’s need to eat on the Sabbath, when, as a fugitive on the run from Saul, with no provisions of his own, he went into the House of God and ate the sacred bread.   Then, as if to make things clearer, Jesus adds that “The Sabbath was made for the sake of humanity and not humanity for the sake of the Sabbath.”  The parallel passage in Luke (6:6-10) has Jesus, on another Sabbath, healing a man with a withered arm, justifying his action by saying that it was a good thing to do, and on the Sabbath, surely good things can be done.   A similar incident occurs in John’s gospel (5:2-17) but with an added and interesting teaching.  This time he’s healing a sick man lying beside the pool called Bethzatha, whom he commands to “take up your pallet and walk.”  That the man carries his pallet, however, is an offense against the Sabbath rest, and, of course, Jesus’ act of healing is also an offense.  And here Jesus says an interesting thing: “My Father is working still, and I am working.”

What is meant by this present active verbal expression of divine labor can be illumined in the parable of the seed growing secretly:

“The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”   (Mark 4:26-29)

The image of a seed in gestation is an excellent one.  Farmers and gardeners know it’s a chancy matter as to what seeds will do once they’re planted: will the seed sprout and put forth a plant to maturity?   After doing what one can to supply fertile ground, cultivation and water, one can only hope.  We can imagine the farmer in this parable, who, having planted the seed, is now sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch, looking out over his field, “night and day” as the parable says, waiting to see what will come forth.   The point of the parable is that the gestation part of the process is where the God the Father is working and the Son is working.  The image serves very well for plant gestation, but of course, the metaphor of seed-time and harvest is frequently used for its messianic implications regarding the destiny of the history in which we work.   It’s a messianic kind of promise working toward the fulfillment of the Kingdom, a continuing divine support for human toil.  Even as Paul says of his efforts:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.   So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth…We are fellow    workmen for God…” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7, 9)

What we are to appreciate here is that divine work precedes and accompanies our own work.  Sunday, as the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, indicates that divine grace underlies any good work that follows through the week to come.  It may seem backward, but we may interpret the biblical teaching in the sense that rest precedes work or puts work in its proper perspective.  This view can be borne out by a close look at Jesus’ invitation:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)

Usually, we are inclined to think that we give ourselves rest, but the original biblical language is not reflexive, not something we do to ourselves, but something done to us.  Hence, the language “I will give you rest,” or sometimes expressed as “I will refresh you,” or “I will lighten your load.”  In other words, it implies that rest has a source outside ourselves.[2]

This teaching, that rest comes to us from outside ourselves, ties in well with the placement of Sunday as both the first day—the day of resurrection—and also the day when rest is given.   Thus rest comes not last but first, and gets its meaning from enabling us to work more effectively afterward.  Rest is not “the suspension of work, but the fructification of work.”[3]   If we make ourselves aware of how we can contribute to the possibilities of God’s kingdom as it shows up in our work, then the rest that goes before work is a strong supportive push “to do the work we’ve been given to do.”  It is part of how the Sabbath is kept holy.

So, then, when is Sunday?  Sunday is the first day of the week.  When do I rest?  I am given rest before I work.  Sunday is given to me as a day to remember that God’s grace and the Son’s resurrection goes ahead of me, that this divine work precedes and supports my work when I work well.

Any essay about work—perhaps especially this one—may sound like a motivational speech, encouraging you to “hit the ground running,” “get out there and make a difference.”  I don’t mean it to be that way.  Rather, I encourage you to remember on Monday; that Monday is the second day of the week.  Bear in mind that your support comes from the grace of God, and that the holiness of Sunday is meant to bear you up and gear you up for the week to come.

Like a person who loves the seasons: summer, fall, winter, and spring, able to taste and know the special aspects of each one, so we ought to savor the goodness of Sunday, and the wonderful way it connects to the rest of the week.

____________

[1] Calvin Marshall, Time, April 6, 1970

[2] George Crespy, “Fatigue and Rest According to the Bible,” in Fatigue in Modern Society, Paul Tournier, ed., James H. Farley, trans. (Richmond: John Knox, 1969), 66.

[3] Idem.

[The Rev. Armand  E. Larive; retired priest and author, Bellingham, WA.]