Part 1: The Special Calling of Christians
From the Beginning
For Christians, the importance of Sunday, "the first day of the week" (John 20:19) dates from the earliest days of Christianity.
The first day of the week is "the day of the Lord" (Revelation 1:10). It is the day which marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ; it celebrates the beginnings of his new "Way". The Acts of the Apostles and the writings of St Paul clearly point to Sunday as the day of the assembly - a day for the faithful to gather in remembrance and celebration of the gift of God in Jesus (Acts 20:7-12; 1 Corinthians 16:1-12).
By AD 150 Justin, martyr, was able to describe the customary practice of Christians:
On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or in the out-lying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.
On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give their assent by saying 'Amen'. The Eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.
The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, or away from home. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need.
We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness to flight and created the world. And because on that same day our Saviour Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.
In 1963, the Second Vatican Council declared:
By an apostolic tradition which took its origin from the very day of Christ's resurrection, the Church celebrates the Paschal Mystery every eighth day; with good reason then, this bears the name of the Lord's Day.
On this day, Christ's faithful should come together in one place, so that by hearing the Word of God and taking part in the Eucharist, they might call to mind the passion and the glorification of the Lord Jesus, and may thank God who "has begotten us again through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead unto a living hope". (1 Peter 1:3)
Hence the Lord's Day is the original feast day and it should be proposed to the piety of the faithful and taught to them in such a way that it may become, in fact, a day of joy and freedom from work. (Const. Sacred Liturgy, n 106).
From the beginning, participation in the Sunday Eucharist has been central to the following of Jesus. It remains an essential part of our Christian identity today.
"A sacrifice of thanksgiving"
AWARENESS and GRATITUDE are the two wellsprings that give rise to the desire to be part of the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist: awareness of God's marvellous plan, calling us out of nothingness into unending life and happiness; and gratitude for so great a gift.
Our gratitude is intensified by knowing that, though we forfeited this gift by sin, all was restored through the sacrifice of Christ.
Our nature requires us to be thankful. It is part of being human. We can be our true selves only by living in the truth; the truth is that life comes to us as gift. To thank the God who gives life is to be profoundly human.
Not to live in this truth, not to receive existence as gift and be thankful for it, is to be unfaithful to self. It is like living a lie.
How can we thank God adequately? How do we express our deepest aspiration towards God? In union with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, of whose Church we are members.
The Mass - the Eucharist - associates us with Christ's own act of thanksgiving and praise. The living Jesus is present in a unique sacramental way, under the appearance of bread and wine, and shares his life with us. More, the Eucharist makes present the very saving action of Jesus. It is a representation of his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection.
"Through Christ" in the Eucharist we are able to share in the life of God. "With Christ" we give adequate thanks to God. "In Christ" we possess the future God offers us. In the Eucharist we, who are members of Christ, give to our living God "all honour and glory".
Giving thanks in union with Christ (which is what "Eucharist" means) is precisely about giving. It is NOT about "what's in it for me?". Going to Mass with the wrong expectation can only bring disappointment.
Claiming to "get nothing out of it", misses the point. It is also untrue! So great is God's goodness that even when we give thanks, it is still we ourselves who receive:
Father, it is our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ. You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace ... (Weekday Mass Preface).
As Christians we do not pretend to be better than we are. Nevertheless, recent research seems to indicate that those Christians who gather regularly for worship are more prayerful in daily life, and more likely to respond to the needs of others.
By opening our minds and hearts to God's word in Sunday worship, by opening our lives to God's presence in the sacraments, and by including each other in our prayers of intercession and gratitude, we make it possible for our faith to spill over into everyday life.
The first Christians were keenly aware that in Eucharist they anticipated Christ's return. In our celebration of the Eucharist today we continue to be the community that remembers and looks forward:
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again.
Our privileged calling as a Christian community is to be a sign of the hope God gives to the world through Christ. The Eucharist has its starting point in Christ's resurrection, and looks forward to our own resurrection - his coming again - and it locates us as a people living consciously and gratefully between these two momentous events. Not to "place" ourselves in this way is to displace ourselves. Displaced persons do not belong anywhere.
No wonder the Letter to the Hebrews urges Christians not to be absent from the assembly, and to be mindful of Christ's coming again (cf. Hebrews 10:25). The Christian inheritance of each person comes from being part of the Christian community. Our belonging to Christ is no private affair. There is a record of 4th century Christians in North Africa accepting martyrdom rather than promise the Roman governor that they would stop taking part in the Sunday Mass. "Without the Sunday celebration we cannot live," they declared. It is clear that the Sunday Eucharist was accepted as being inseparable from the following of Jesus even before the Sunday obligation became part of Church law.
Another document of those early days of the Church ("The Teaching of the Apostles") states that those who are absent from the Sunday gathering are "depriving the body of Christ".
Being present with others can be inspiring and supportive. The circumstances of our lives and the differences between us - race, age, wealth, social position, culture - are building blocks in a community, opportunities for growth and joy. The children and elderly persons, the widowed, single people and family groups - all are gifts to the community of the body of Christ.
It is not suggested that every experience of parish community worship is equally good. It is typical of the human condition that there will be "good days and bad days" in our relationships with one another. Let us not dwell on the negative times, however, as though we could never hope for anything better. The importance of the Eucharist for life should encourage us to be always looking for ways to improve our celebrations.
The Mass Matters
In an earlier generation, Catholics used to say "It's the Mass that matters". That stated a deeply rooted appreciation that here we have a gift beyond price. The Sunday celebration is the most important way of expressing the Christian life and the life of the community (cf. Vatican II, ( Const. Sacred Liturgy, n. 106).
To reject the privilege of celebrating Eucharist on Sunday is to become seriously at odds with God and with the community of believers. To continue in this way is to fail in our following of Jesus. It is a serious fault which requires the healing of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is understood that there are just reasons why people may not he able to take part in the Mass. Sickness or distance are two obvious examples. And, too, there are those who exit from Mass to accompany catechumens. They remain united to the worshipping community, sharing in its prayers and its blessings.
Part II: A Human Need
Not by bread alone
Keeping Sunday holy meets deep human needs.
The need to be thankful has already been mentioned. Other needs include making sure human life is not reduced to just one of its dimensions - the economic.
If the demands of earning a living are not to be an unrelenting, unmerciful bondage, there must be a time each week when people can distance themselves from economic striving.
We need time to lift our sights above daily pressures to higher goals and to glimpse life's ultimate purpose. We need space to heed those yearnings of the human spirit for refreshment and reflection - yearnings too often suppressed by frantic and competitive activity. We need occasions to be recreated.
This "time out" from our clock-regulated pattern of existence, is not to be thought of as an escape from social duties and responsibilities. It is in fact a minimum requirement for renewed commitment.
Jesus reminds us that "life is more than food, and the body more than clothing" (Matthew 6:25). There are dimensions to our humanity, beyond the demands and enticements of the market place that are necessary for the fullness of life.
The Right to Rest
In an increasingly commercialised and competitive society, we have ever greater need of what Pope John Paul II has called the right to rest (The Dignity of Human Work, n.19).
This is not simply an individual right. It also applies to rest and renewal in the company of others on a common day of rest. Families in particular need a "family day" free from the pressures of work and with time to enjoy being together.
Sunday should be "a day of playfulness and simplicity, of contemplation and wonder, of praise and enjoyment of life. Rather than doing different things on Sunday, we should consider doing less and being more. On Sunday, we should rest from our day-to-day efforts to change the imperfections of our world and instead rejoice in the beauty and splendour of creation." (The Meaning of Sunday in a Pluralistic Society. Pastoral Reflections by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986. n 15)
There will always be some whose work on Sunday is essential for the public good. It is important they feel our appreciation of their contribution to social life. But these workers too should have a right to enjoy the full benefit of Sunday protected in law; they should perhaps not be expected to work every Sunday.
Part III: Conclusion
As Catholics, we, in common with all people, need to be re-created by time out from activities that otherwise oppress. Along with other Christians we should do our full part in defending the right to rest.
But there is more. The re-creation that comes to us in the Eucharist is from the risen Christ. It is our assurance of final victory over sin and death. It is the basis of the hope that gives purpose and vitality to everyday life, and it gives meaning to human existence. Union with the risen Christ means union with him whose body was broken and whose blood was poured out for others. Receiving him in the Eucharist seals our commitment to give ourselves for others. Closeness to God involves closeness to the world God loves.
The First Letter of John gives us these wonderful words: "You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God's children - which is what we are!" (1 John 3:1). It is especially when we gather for Eucharist that the impact of that "great love" is known. For the Eucharist is our family gathering - our festival around the table of the Bread of Life.
The Sunday celebration is a time together in the secure embrace of our loving God. It renews and re-creates our commitment to love. Our "first day" strengthens us for every day.
+ Thomas Cardinal Williams, Archbishop of Wellington
+ Edward Gaines, Bishop of Hamilton
+ Peter Cullinane, Bishop of Palmerston North
+ Denis Browne, Bishop of Auckland
+ Leonard Boyle, Bishop of Dunedin
+ Basil Meeking, Bishop of Christchurch
+ Takuira Mariu SM, Auxiliary Bishop of Hamilton
A summary of Pope John Paul's Apostolic Letter by the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand and supplementary to "The First Day"
[The Apostolic Letter is addressed "to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the Catholic Church".]
‘Dies Domini (The Day of the Lord)
The Lord’s Day has always been special for Christians. It is the day of Christ’s resurrection at Easter, the "fundamental event upon which Christian faith rests": a day of joy. The coming of the third millennium invites Christians to deepen their understanding of the meaning and necessity of Sunday.
In modern societies the weekend has developed. This weekly time of rest is good, but Christians should acknowledge that Sunday is for more than just rest and relaxation: it is a day at the heart of Christian life, a day for giving time to developing a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Chapter 1: The Day of the Lord
In the biblical story of creation, God rested on the seventh day and saw the goodness of all that he had created. It is a result of this goodness that humans have been able to advance culturally, scientifically and technologically.
God set the seventh day apart from the other days. He blessed the seventh day (the Sabbath) and made it particularly holy, decreeing observance of it in the Ten Commandments.
For humans it is a time for recalling that all time and space belongs to God and for focusing on a personal relationship with him.
Chapter II: The Day of Christ
Christians remember God’s saving works on the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath, when Christ rose from the dead - the resurrection being the climax of salvation history. The importance of Sunday as the "weekly Easter", and its development as the Christian Sabbath through Church history is documented.
As well as being the day of Christ’s resurrection, Sunday was also the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles at Pentecost. Normally the Church performs baptisms on Sunday, when Christians are "made new in Christ", entering the mystery of his death and resurrection. Therefore, Sunday is a "day of faith".
"It is clear then why, even in our own difficult times, the identity of this day must be protected and above all must be lived in all its depth. â€¦ Given its many meanings and aspects, and its link to the very foundations of the faith, the celebration of the Christian Sunday remains an indispensable element of our Christian identity."
Chapter III: The Day of the Church
"Sunday is not only a remembrance of a past event: it is a celebration of the living presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his own people." For this presence to be properly proclaimed, it is not enough for Christians to pray individually.
As members of the Church it is important for them to assemble together, particularly at the celebration of the Eucharist (‘the Mass’ which is at the heart of the Church’s life, and which literally means ‘thanksgiving’.
The Sunday Mass, when the Christian community re-lives the experience of the Apostles meeting Christ after the resurrection, is a particular sign of the Church journeying towards the final ‘Lord’s Day’ when Christ will return.
At the Sunday Mass, the different groups and movements within a parish come together, and encounter God in his word (in the readings from the Bible) and in Holy Communion. They bring their whole lives, with all the burdens of the previous week, and share with the whole community in thanking God for the gifts of creation and salvation.
Since the Mass is at the centre of the Catholic faith, the Church obliges Catholics to attend on the Lord’s Day "unless there is a grave impediment". Catholics should participate fully in the celebration according to their different roles (as priests, deacons and laity).
Inspired by the Eucharist, "Christ’s disciples return to their everyday surroundings with the commitment to make their whole life pleasing to God".
Outside the Mass, Christians should still seek to keep the Sunday holy: for example, with periods of reflection and discussion within families, and with special times of prayer.
Where a priest is not available to celebrate the Mass, the local community is still recommended to come together for worship. Radio and television may also help those who are unable to attend in person, to share in some way in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Chapter IV: The Day of Humanity
Sunday is a day of joy, the day of Christ’s resurrection. To rediscover the full meaning of Sunday, it is necessary to rediscover Christian joy, which does not conflict with human joy, but is "more enduring and consoling". The Church urges Christians to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist with joy.
Resting from work on Sunday helps humanity to recognise its dependence on God the creator, and provides the time to keep the day holy as a day of worship.
"Even in our own day work is very oppressive for many people, either because of miserable working conditions and long hours - especially in the poorer regions of the world - or because of the persistence in economically more developed societies of too many cases of injustice and exploitation of man by man. ...
"There remains the obligation to ensure that everyone can enjoy the freedom, rest and relaxation which human dignity requires, together with the associated religious, family, cultural and interpersonal needs which are difficult to meet if there is no guarantee of at least one day of the week on which people can both rest and celebrate."
At the same time, the right of workers to rest presupposes their right to work - in reflecting on the Christian understanding of Sunday, those who are forced to remain inactive on workdays are recalled with a "deep sense of solidarity".
Through Sunday rest, the concerns of life can be put in their proper perspectives: material things can give way to spiritual values. Under less pressure, people appreciate each other and their environment better. Christians will also wish to "strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy". In any case, they ought to participate in the Eucharist and refrain "from work and activities which are incompatible with the sanctification of the Lord’s Day".
Sunday also provides the opportunity to engage in charitable works. Inspired by the Eucharist, Christians will be aware of those who are in need: the sick, the elderly, children or immigrants.
"Why not make the Lord’s Day a more intense time of sharing, encouraging all the inventiveness of which Christian charity is capable? Inviting to a meal people who are alone, visiting the sick, providing food for needy families, spending a few hours in voluntary work and acts of solidarity: these would certainly be ways of bringing into peoples lives the love of Christ received at the Eucharistic table."
The particular presence of Christ on Sunday should also inspire Christians to work more to change the oppressive structures present in society.
Chapter V: The Day of Days
At Easter the Church recognises Christ as the Beginning and the End: the Lord of time. This is also true of Sunday, the "weekly Easter", which "cuts through time" and points towards Jesus’s second coming.
The awareness of time is also apparent in the Church’s year, with its seasons and feast days. Special attention is necessary so that the celebration of Sundays and other holy days may benefit rather than suffer from popular and cultural seasonal traditions.
"It is crucially important that all the faithful should be convinced that they cannot live their faith or share fully in the life of the Christian community unless they take part regularly in the Sunday Eucharistic assembly. ...
"Certainly, Christians are no different from other people in enjoying the weekly day of rest; but at the same time they are keenly aware of the uniqueness and originality of Sunday, the day on which they are called to celebrate their salvation and the salvation of all humanity. Sunday is the day of joy and the day of rest precisely because it is ‘the Lord’s Day’, the day of the risen Lord."
The letter is dated 31 May 1998 - the Feast of Pentecost.