Did you have a good Easter weekend? If so, it wasn’t Christian.
I don’t mean Easter. Certainly, that is emphatically Christian. I mean the weekend.
The concept of “weekend” is not a Christian one, but its complete cultural adoption by Christians has weakened a key pillar of discipleship – keeping the Lord’s Day holy.
Last week both Convivium and our sister publication Comment sent out material speaking of the “Easter weekend.” So we, too, are guilty of what needs to be corrected. Nearly every Catholic parish and diocese across the land speaks of “weekend Masses” – the anticipated Mass on Saturday evening along with the Masses offered on Sunday.
Easter above all should remind us that Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) is the end of the week, the day of rest after the six days of work. There was a rush the get the bodies off the Cross and into the tomb on Good Friday because it had to be done before the Sabbath began at sundown. The women went to the tomb early on Sunday morning because it was their first opportunity to do so after the Sabbath. The Gospels remind us that it was the first day of the week (Mark 16:2, John 20:1).
Saturday-Sunday do not for a Christian constitute the end of the week, but the end-and-beginning. Most calendars reflect that too; Sunday appears at the head of the week.
Does it matter? Supremely so. How we mark time shapes everything that we do, for it is the context in which we do it. Time is the first “thing” God creates. In creating things outside of Himself, God introduces a before and an after, which means time has come into being.
During Holy Week, we published here a reflection by Father Tim McCauley on the Sabbath as the “cathedral” of the Jewish people, a consecrated time rather a consecrated building. It was an expression he learned from the writings of the scholar-rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath lies at the very heart of Jewish life. In the Gospels, the Sabbath is the most contested point between Jesus and the religious leaders. Although Jesus does not blanch from declaring His divinity on many occasions, His declaration that He was “Lord of the Sabbath” was amongst His most provocative claims.
The Ten Commandments proceed in order of importance: the prohibition on killing is more grave than the one on coveting; Sabbath observance is treated in the third commandment – more important than honouring our parents, more important than marital fidelity. Keeping holy the Sabbath is the divinely instituted means of remembering that what is most precious to us – our time – is not wholly ours. It is to be offered to God and regulated by Him. The Sabbath is good for us too. That may not have been sensed in ancient times as keenly as it is today, when we are in desperate need to be freed from the slavery of constant work, of constantly being in touch and in demand.
For the early Christians, formed in Sabbath observance, only a world-changing event could alter their understanding of God and time sufficiently to change Sabbath observance for the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the first day of the week. The resurrection of Jesus was just that, the beginning of a new creation. Just as the first day of the week was the first day of creation in Genesis, now the first day of the week is the day of the new creation which not only restores what had been lost, but raises it up to a new level entirely.
Christians mark the Lord’s Day on the first day of the week, akin to the first fruits that are justly sacrificed to God. We begin the week with the worship of God. It’s the first work to be done – liturgy means “public work” – rather than a period of leisure.
Sabbath rest and refraining from work on the Lord’s Day is not principally about relaxation and recuperation. The ethos of the “weekend” is rest from burdens. That is not the idea of the Lord’s Day, which is to be free from burdens precisely to undertake the most important work of all. If we say “thank God it’s Friday” we are looking to be free from work. The Christian who says “thank God it’s Sunday” desires to be free in order to do holy work.
The shift in speech and attitude from Lord’s Day to weekend changes the framework, or as is customary to say now, the narrative. It is a move from holy time to secular time. And as surely as night follows day, secular pursuits expand in secular time to squeeze out time that was previously reserved for God. Hence the fastest growing new religion in Canada is children’s sports, solemnly observed even on Easter Sunday.
In 1998, St. John Paul II wrote a deeply biblical meditation on the Lord’s Day, entitled just that in Latin, Dies Domini.
It’s a lengthy and comprehensive document that examines the Lord’s Day in its theological, spiritual, liturgical, familial, social and anthropological aspects. It repays the effort and time it takes to read it. And it begins by identifying the contrast between the Lord’s Day and the weekend:
Until quite recently, it was easier in traditionally Christian countries to keep Sunday holy because it was an almost universal practice and because, even in the organization of civil society, Sunday rest was considered a fixed part of the work schedule. Today, however, even in those countries which give legal sanction to the festive character of Sunday, changes in socioeconomic conditions have often led to profound modifications of social behaviour and hence of the character of Sunday. The custom of the “weekend” has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days. This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people’s development and to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. All of this responds not only to the need for rest, but also to the need for celebration that is inherent in our humanity.
Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a “weekend,” it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see “the Heavens.”
Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so. The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy, and the “weekend,” understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation.
The loss of the Lord’s Day has indeed trapped our culture in a limited horizon so that Sunday is no different from Saturday, or any day off. We trade in something radically other – the worship of the God who is beyond this world – for just more of the same – work, sports, shopping. As Bob Dylan – Nobel laureate! – sang years ago, you gotta serve somebody, either the devil or the Lord. Sunday is our weekly appointment to decide which.
The term “weekend” is ubiquitous, not to mention useful. But how we speak matters, and so in specifically Christian contexts we should not use it. There is no “Easter weekend” and no “weekend” activities advertised in the church bulletin. We don’t have “weekend” services, but hold them on the “Lord’s Day.” We try to differentiate how we live Sunday from Saturday, beginning with how we speak.
How was the Easter weekend? I have no idea. No such thing exists.
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