We assume that the Christian Sunday is the transposition of the Jewish Sabbath.
However, there is much more to this. The Christian Sunday is quite different from the Jewish
Sunday. There is a link but they are not identical.
The Jewish Sabbath was peculiar for the Jews, i.e. the neighbouring people. The main
characteristic of the Jewish Sabbath was abstaining from all kinds of work. This was something
expected from all people. It was the same kind of mentality which celebrated the value of life
over work, i.e there is more to life than to work – all that we have received is coming from God.
We celebrate this generosity of God by stressing that we are superior to our work. Therefore, we
can afford to be generous and stop for one day.
This was the mentality that required the liberation of a Hebrew slave after six years of
service in the Old Testament. The Jews were slaves and they had been freed by God and given a
land where they could live. Therefore it was clear that man was superior to work. As time went
on, Sabbath was also linked to Creation. First it was linked to the Exodus (the Exodus was much
earlier in the Jewish mentality than the idea of Creation. They understood God as the God who
had freed them from Egypt). As time went on they also discovered that God was the Creator.
In the account of Creation that we find in Genesis Chapter 1, which was written later than
the one in Chapter 2, the Sabbath was also linked to the fact that God himself rested, i.e. when
we rest we are in a way imitating God. After the six days of Creation, God rested. The Sabbath
now had a sacred dimension. We are doing God’s work when we rest on the Sabbath and this
was to develop later into the hope of entering definitively not only once a week and in a more or
less symbolic matter but in a very real manner, entering into God’s rest forever – the idea of the
Afterlife, which developed much later in the Jewish mentality.
During the Exile, the Sabbathic rest was what distinguished the Jews from other nations.
They had their temple where they would offer their sacrifices; however, they had this sacred
institution which was refraining from work every seventh day. In a way, it became an essential
sign of the people’s Covenant with Jahweh. It was what distinguished them, just like
circumcision distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles, refraining from work on the Sabbath
distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles. It became to be regarded as the fundamental
Commandment of the Decalogue during and after the Exile. After the Exile, the stress was laid
much more on the perfect observance of the Lord and more attention was given to the law
regarding Sabbath rest. Just as Creation was a Covenant between God and Man, so also resting
from work was Man’s response to God in the Sabbath.
However, from the Gospels, we get to know that the Sabbath Legislation became more
formalistic. The idea of the Sabbath as an expression of freedom and liberty was transformed
into a very formalistic attitude. Putting much attention on the rules that one has to observe on
the Sabbath, made it, in a way, contrary to what was the original inspiration when Jesus himself
said: The Sabbath is for Man and not Man for the Sabbath. But that was how things developed:
a sick person went to Jesus Christ to be cured and he was angry at the way the crowd was
understanding the Sabbath and using it not to liberate people but to make them remain oppressed.
This sick person had the chance of being freed from her sickness and the Scribes were saying
that Jesus Christ would not cure her because it was the Sabbath. But Jesus did the opposite – He
used the Sabbath many times to cure people.
The Sabbath was so closely identified with God that Christ was claiming to be Divine in
this way. Jesus emphasised that the greatest Commandment is not the observance of the Sabbath
but Love of God and Love of Man. But this idea was transformed during the times after the
What happened between the period when Jesus Christ was alive and what we have now
developed into Christian Sunday?
The first Christians, who were a very small group, were not important at all. They were living in
a world which was in its great majority non-Christian (either Jewish in the beginning or pagans
for the first three centuries). So they were never in a position to influence the way society was
run to accommodate their celebration of Sunday. However, from the very beginning, we find
that Sunday was a very special day for them. It is very clear from the Gospel accounts that the
Resurrection took place on a Sunday. In the Acts of the Apostles we also find that Pentecost also
took place on a Sunday. From Chapter 20 of the Fourth Gospel one finds that on the evening of
the first day of the Resurrection, the Apostles were gathered together and after eight days Jesus
Christ appeared and they were together again. This stresses that the Apostles met on two
successive Sundays. The clearest evidence is found in Acts 20:7 – on the first day of the week,
we assemble for the breaking of the bread. Similar evidence is found in 1 Cor. 16:2.
The difference between Christian Sunday and the Jewish Sabbath, for obvious reasons,
there was no connection between Sunday and refraining from work. They had no possibility to
stop from work. We have evidence that Christians used to meet very early in the morning
(Tertullian) – Christians meeting before dawn to celebrate the Eucharist because later they have
to go to work. They regarded Sunday as the day of the Lord.
Much later, towards the end of the third century, when the Emperor Aurelianius declared
the Sun worship to be the State religion – during the time of paganism, every day was dedicated
to a different God and this Emperor, around 270 A.D. decreed Sun worship as the State religion
so that the day of the SUN (Sunday) was given a certain amount of importance over the other
Gradually, after the Edit of Milan in 313 and after the proclamation of Christianity as the official
religion of the State, we find that more and more importance was given to Christian worship on
Sundays. They were given more opportunities to worship, not before dawn but at a more
convenient hour. It was pre-supposed that the Christians would keep the day free from other
business to participate in the Eucharist. The basic idea was that Sunday was the day of the
As time went on in the Middle Ages, in the age of Christendom, Sunday was the day built
around Christian worship. There was Eucharist at 9.00 in the morning, preceded by matins in
the early morning and Vespers in the evening. Gradually, Sunday became a day of rest; it
became more and more like the Sabbath of the Jews. It was not only possible not to work in
Sunday, but gradually it became an obligation not to work. From the idea of giving the
opportunity to Christians to participate freely in worship, it passed on to become an obligation
under the influence of the Jews.
Unfortunately, this led the Church to stress much more the aspect of Sunday as a day of
rest rather than a day of worship and rest. The third Commandment was taken to refer to Sunday
and this day became a day of obligation to participate in the Eucharist. In a way, the meaning
that Sunday was the day of the Lord and a day of the Community was being lost
Vatican Council II tried to remedy the situation – to bring back more balance. Paragraph
106 of the Constitution of the Liturgy speaks of Sunday. It says that the faithful, on this day,
should come together into one place so that there will be the idea of a Community, so that by
hearing the word of God and taking part in the Eucharist, they bring to mind the Passion and the
Resurrection. The Lord’s day is the original feast day. It may become a day of joy and of
freedom of work.
However, in our time, this has changed radically, even from Vatican Council II, at least in
our country. In olden times, the Christian community was very much smaller and so it could
meet together in a one single group under the priest or under the Bishop. The big cities of the
Middle Ages were quite small. It was much easier to meet every Sunday in one small group and
have one Eucharistic celebration. There are places where this is still possible because of a small
community. Today, we have several celebrations of the Eucharist because it is impossible to
have only one single celebration for the whole Maltese community.
Another great difference is our way in understanding the term “work” or “Sunday”. The
fact that Sunday is a day of rest is becoming obsolete in the material world we live in, including
Malta, because less and less people are having a day of rest and celebration because of their
work. Modern life is not as homogenous as it was before. This is a reality. For many people,
now, Sunday is just the second day of the week – people would regard Saturday as their day of
rest. In more and more places, even in Malta, there is the possibility of shops opening on Sunday
for shopping. All this does not help to have a meaningful understanding of Sunday. Sometimes,
Sunday is a day were people work more money-wise.
This is a very clear sign of secularization. Even though people still go to Church on
Sunday, their mentality is much more secularized. We managed to combine a secularized
mentality with going to Church and the way we are living our Sundays shows how secularized
out mentality has become, even though a good proportion of people go to Church on Sunday. In
a way, people are more critical when they come to choose a Liturgy – this is one of the reasons
why less people go to Church but we have many more Masses than we had some years ago.
It is important to stress that the first primary meaning of Sunday is the Day of the Lord,
the Day of Worship, the Day of Celebration and the Day of the Community. But we also have a
long tradition for many centuries regarding Sunday Work.
The Obligation was seen as an obligation to abstain from servile work. The mentality
was to divide work into two kinds of occupations: that which was done by servants (mostly
manual labour) and the rest. In a traditional society, most people used to work in fields or
craftsmen and therefore they could not take a day off easily. The only way which made them
stop from their work was by prohibiting a certain kind of work to be done. The work that was
done by people who were not servants was allowed.
All this mentality has changed, both because we are living in a more secularised world,
and because people have much more free time. The method used before was one way of giving
people at least one day of rest. The introduction of industry and production which could not stop
changed much the way we look at work.
We must look for other criteria which are capable for transmitting the message of Sunday
rest, criteria which are more meaningful to our life and to our understanding of Sunday.
Obviously, all this is very closely related to the way we understand Sunday. What
activities are meaningful on Sunday? There are 4 characteristics of Sunday work:
As we are celebrating the day of the Lord and the day of celebration, then we must see that
Sunday activities should be free, i.e. not freedom as contrary to compulsory, but in a much
deeper meaning of the word. Freedom should be understood in the sense that we normally
understand – on Sunday I do what I want to do and not what I am made to do; something I enjoy
Freedom is Joy because I do things that I enjoy doing. We should try to discover more what
Christian freedom really means – what it means to believe in Christ who really rose from thedead, whose freedom was so great that not even death could restrict him. We should discover what it means to be superior to one’s work – work is for Man and not Man for Work. We should
try to do things that show that we a Christians, who are people who shares the Good News. Joy
is an integral part of Christian life.
We must see that most of the activities we do on Sunday recreate us. They help us to recreate
our forces and face out normal life. This is the true meaning of the Resurrection – Christ now
gives a new life. St Paul says that we are a new creation – therefore, Sunday should also make us
realise more the transformation that the Resurrection of Christ has made in us.
God created us with the capacity to be creators ourselves. This must be taken together with the
other because it must be a creative activity which is free and which we enjoy doing. It would be
very difficult to say that an activity has been creative if it is a continuation of what we are doing
during the week.
This is one of the greatest challenges of the whole of mankind in our Western world. People
have more and more leisure than before and yet they do not know how to make use of it. People
work less yet we do not seem to be very good at finding out ways in which we live this leisure.
As Christians we have this challenge – to create a meaning of liturgy on Sunday and to help
people to realise that the way they use their leisure is a way of living their Christian vocation
because in that way they can celebrate the Resurrection of Christ who has now gone into God’s
rest. Sometimes Sunday is called the First Day of the Week – a new Creation and sometimes it is
called the eighth day of the week – Eternity (life with God for ever). This day of rest is already
an anticipation of this life with God for ever.