“Without Sunday, we cannot…”

[this post was written in 2016, and after receiving a request today to “post a draft to break up ur week off and don’t bother editing it”. I won’t!]

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus. Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied, “Sine dominico non possumus” [without Sunday we cannot]. That is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. — Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of my children asked me the other day, “What’s the best way to explain why we go to church every Sunday?” I offered three points — one from my memory of a theology class lecture (the notes of which I later retrieved to post here), one from an immigrant Siberian woman and one from a granddaughter of Italian immigrants.

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My dogmatic theology professor back in 1992 once said, according my fresh rendering of those choppy class notes:

One of the most crucial points of that very orderly 7-day creation story in Genesis, and really of the whole Torah, is that God not only organizes space in the way He wishes, but He also organizes time. God gets to decide when, where and how we are to enter His presence and worship Him. The Book of Leviticus delves into this ‘ordo’ in excruciating detail. In other words for both Jews and Christians the who-what-when-where-why-how of worship is not a personal choice or a style preference — “I have my own way of worshiping God.” Rather, worship is revealed to us by God wrapped in a command. The Eucharist is supremely that, instituted and commanded by the God-Man.

To engage with God on God’s terms is a terribly weighty matter for Jews. Man-made religion is the stuff of pagans with their hand-crafted idols. God-made religion is the stuff of Jews, the people He chose to shout to humanity: you are God-etched images whom God set in the world to teach the world God’s Way; to love the world God’s Way; to cultivate the world God’s Way; to bless the world God’s Way. Again, the Jews go out of their way to make absolutely clear: ours is a revealed religion, not the product of human ingenuity but surprisingly disclosed and reluctantly discovered inside a divine Furnace burning on Mt Sinai during an earthquake.

It’s why the Church has always been at pains to organize the liturgical year according to the pattern shown her in the divine economy. All of it. Every feast day, every holy season reflects some aspect of God-writ salvation history; reflects the way that God has organized His own ‘oikos,’ His cosmic home that He designed for us to live in with Him, i.e. Emmanuel.

So, Jesus rose from the dead and sent down the Fire of the Spirit on a Sunday, re-creating the creation, dawning creation’s Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day. Therefore Christians worship on Sunday. Period. If, that is, they want any part in His new creation. Or they can skip Sunday Eucharist and opt out, sleep in, watch TV and miss out on eternity. This is why so many Christians early on, and throughout the centuries, were willing to risk the loss of biological life rather than renounce their commerce with eternal life that Sunday offered.

And this is why the Church makes Sunday a grave obligation: it is the Day on which all time hinges, when Christ’s Body gathers as one, the Day when Christians do their priestly work of transacting between heaven and earth, singing the songs of the free, giving thanks for all things, offering up six days worth of sacrifices, and eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of God.

If that doesn’t get you out of bed and to church, I don’t know what possibly could.

And as wonderful a gift as daily Mass is, it should never be allowed to overshadow the preeminence of the Sunday Eucharist. As they say in the Eastern Churches of Sunday: “This chosen and holy day is the first of the Sabbaths, the queen and lady, the feast of feasts, and the festival of festivals.” It is the apex and axis of time. God gives the faithful Monday through Saturday, six days to engage in their priestly preparation of gifts, for wheat-and-grape crushing. But He gives us one Day for the Great and Holy Oblation, the Awful Sacrifice, when those gifts are gathered up into the joying House of the dancing Father by the ascending Christ through the Wind and Fire of the falling Spirit. No sleepy church allowed in this whirling perichoresis!

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Back in the late 1980’s I met a Siberian woman at my dad’s Orthodox parish. We were talking about her flight from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and she was hacking and coughing. I mentioned to her how impressed I was that she came to church even when she was very unwell (even as I wondered if she thought about how contagions travel!). She said:

It is nothing. In my country people go to the gulag or die for going to church, so what is it if I come to church sick? This country was established so you could go to church freely, but once people tasted freedom they used it for other things and stopped going to church. To me that’s a slap in God’s face. People stopped using their freedom for God and use it on themselves. So when I am tired or sick I think of the people home who risk their lives to go each Sunday and then for me it is nothing. It is a blessing.

I was stunned speechless. I thought of the interconnection of the Eucharist, with its core of “this is my Body broken, Blood shed” sacrifice, the command at the end of Liturgy to “Go!” and the willingness to live this whole furious mystery in the world outside the church. If freedom in the Inside Church is defined by sacrifice, freedom in the Outside Church must be likewise.

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Years ago I asked a woman to give a personal testimony to parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion. She had earlier shared a story that knocked my socks off so I wanted the parents to hear it as well. It went something like this:

When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents were the hub of our family. Their home was like a warm hearth, full of love. Almost every Sunday of the year, we had to go to their house after morning Mass for a family gathering and feast. My grandparents were Italian so food was a huge part of life. And everyone brought something. The house was packed with immediate and extended family, and occasionally some random stranger my grandmother invited. Before lunch began everyone always had to gather in the den, packed like sardines, and listen to Papa tell some fantastic story from our family history. I am sure now his stories were a mix of fact and fiction, which my grandmother would confirm any time she stepped into the room as she would immediately correct some detail or say, “Papa, stop exaggerating.” Everyone would laugh and he would sing this line from Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember it well!” Sometimes he would get choked up as he told a story, other times he would tell funny stories, laughing harder than anyone else; and still other times told stories that were meant to teach us kids something about our family’s core values. Honesty, integrity, patience, courage.

When my grandmother died and my grandfather went into a nursing home, our extended family started to unravel until my mom decided to take up the tradition and keep it going. She still does, though it’s not quite the same.

What I learned from this is that when you don’t have a regular place for family to gather, hear their stories, sing and laugh and cry and eat together, you forget who you are the rest of the week. My grandparents as good Catholics knew Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day set apart to celebrate family and life and God’s gifts and to keep us close to each other so we could, each of us, stay strong. They thought that without family everything falls apart. On Sunday, we knew who we were as a family, and so I knew who I was, so the rest of the week we could then live up to our family name and our family tradition of hard work, generosity, love.

That’s how I think of Sunday and Mass and why making sure Sunday and Mass look like each other is a priority. It’s an obligation of love and not of guilt. Though there was always that if you missed, my grandmother was good at Catholic guilt!

I’ll end with this quote from the Bible that Father John used when my daughter made her First Communion. It made me realize that my grandmother knew that the feast of the Mass and the feast of home needed each other, made sense of each other. So: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” [Nehemiah 8:9-10]

Our local Archbishop has put restrictions on sports and certain other activities in Catholic schools and parishes to help return the focus of Sunday as a day of worship, of family, of rest, of outreach to the lonely and poor and suffering. I am so grateful for his courage and I know he has faced lots of resistance and criticism. But he has only created a space, a vacuum that now demands to be filled by us Catholics who’ve been gifted with the limitless creativity of our faith. It’s our mission to make Sunday into a day so extraordinary and so revolutionary that the rest of the world — presently consumed by endless work, addictive entertainment and restless consumption — may just decide to stop, look up and listen to our song of revolution: “Without Sunday, we cannot…” The list is endless.

Without Sunday, the day we remember that, in the end, all is gift:

6 comments on ““Without Sunday, we cannot…”

  1. Jennifer says:

    So much! I’ll post something tonight in response. This is a huge gift. God bless your week.

  2. Nos. says:

    ALL dioceses ought to emulate your archbishops “decree” … Let the complaining and whining begin… Thomas I pray your post is shared with so so so many catholic parents young and old … as we use to say when I was growing up—spot on— …sadly tradition of yesteryear not only in the family,but in the church also,isn’t what it use to be , just ask some of those conservative Fordham alums… St. Ignatius is turning over in his grave,well actually he’s probably In heaven debating one of Micheals favorite saints as to why the papacy should have stayed in France… and I’ll bet on St Catherine Sunday.

    P.S.the dinner table photo looks like my house on birthday and holiday celebrations some tradition are here to stay … “””small scale””” still waiting for the book review along with the good Dochtahs…I’m not getting any younger…

    P.P.S.Patti I know your Mothers day will be filled with so much joy and laughter and love you’re one of the best kiddo… love from the crew to all

  3. Sybil Heilman says:

    So moving. Thank you Tom! Prayers for you and your beautiful family!

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