IMPORTANCE OF THE SUNDAY CELEBRATION
The first day of the Jewish week (Sunday) received extraordinary importance as early as the writings of the NT. It is the day of the resurrection of the Lord, a favorite day of His apparitions, and the day of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It becomes the privileged day for gatherings of Christians. The communitarian celebration had no fixed form yet, but the Lord’s Supper receives crucial importance (1 Cor 11).
Since Sunday used to be a regular day of work, liturgical congregations had to be held late at night, or early in the morning. Shortly after 300 AD, the council of Elvira (Spain) already had rules that if someone who lives in town misses three Sunday Masses in a row, he or she has to be excluded for a brief period.
The importance of Christian Sunday is visible in its various names.
- First Day: Beginning of the week and first day of creation, which was the day of light.
- Day of the Lord (Dies Dominica): (Rev 1:10) The name preserved and used by the Church, but also in modern Roman languages.
- Eighth Day: (John 20:26) Beginning of the new creation, after the conclusion of the seven days with the Sabbat.
- Day of the Resurrection: Attested as early as the writings of Tertullian and preserved in some of the Slavic languages.
- Sunday (Dies Solis): First used by pagans, but later adopted by Christians, since Christ is the light of the world and sun of righteousness; used in Anglo-Saxon languages.
- Non-working: Day of abstaining from work; used in some Slavic languages.
- Market-day: Liturgical celebration allowed having a market; in Hungarian.
Obligatory participation in Sunday liturgy would not have been realistic for Christians in the early centuries. It was only with the Emperor Constantine that abstaining from work was ordered (March 3, 321), with the exception of rural populations (farmers). While abstaining from work supplemented and facilitated the practice of liturgical celebrations, it took several centuries to define Sunday obligation (attending Mass). The link to the Third Commandment Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day has only been known since the Middle Ages and the Sunday obligation is occasionally stressed (one particular decree from Hungary 1016 rules that all those who miss their Sunday obligation must be severely beaten). Talking about Sunday obligation as a Church precept was only in practice since about the 15th/16th century.
The Christian celebration of Sunday is primarily determined by the resurrection of Christ. Every Sunday is a small Easter. When Christians come together on Sunday, by word and meal they proclaim the death and resurrection of the Lord until He comes. The Sunday celebration includes not only Easter, but also Good Friday. It is a journey of Jesus through His passion and death to new life given by the Father. Both are present: the sacrifice on the cross and the new life that derives from this sacrifice.
The community that celebrates Sunday is itself on this journey of Jesus. It involves our death and resurrection too. Martyrs were prime examples of completing this journey, but each Christian lives the same reality through the sacramental sign of baptism: the real separation from old life-attitudes and new life in the community.
Celebrating Sunday thus means the passing from this world through death to a new life. It pertains to Christ, all the Christians who want to be part of this journey, and the whole world that is transformed. Celebrating Sunday means looking back, not only at what happened at Easter in Jerusalem; it also means looking ahead: the fulfillment of creation and the return of the Lord.
REGULAR AND EXCEPTIONAL CIRCUMSTANCES
The Church teaches clearly:
On this day Christ’s faithful are bound to come together into one place. They should listen to the word of God and take part in the Eucharist, thus calling to mind the passion, resurrection, and glory of the Lord Jesus and giving thanks to God.(SSC 106)
This obligation can only be fulfilled in person, by actual presence in the liturgical congregation and, as repeatedly encouraged by the Church by active participation, but not by watching Mass on television or something similar. The Church, however, is mindful of many people’s particular circumstances and allows serious reasons to excuse one from this obligation (illness, the care of infants). It is left to the judgment of each individual faithful’s conscience to evaluate the seriousness of his or her subjective situation. Otherwise, dispensation can also be granted by one’s own pastor. (CCC 2180-2182)
Further, the Church also recognizes objective situations:
If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.CIC 1248, par. 2
We are more fortunate than Christians in other parts of the world even during this time of the pandemic when public celebration of the liturgy is not possible. Modern technologies allow us to stream the liturgy and follow it from our homes and thus be nurtured spiritually. A few things should be remembered:
- Since it is not possible objectively to participate in a public liturgy, no one commits sin by not going to church.
- Following an on-line Mass does not satisfy the Sunday obligation (in other times or during the pandemic). The faithful are not bound by the Sunday obligation on these days!
- The priests celebrate the liturgy for the entire parish community (on Sunday as well as on weekdays) and invite people to join in prayer. Though unable to be with each other physically, even a virtual connection and streamed Holy Mass creates a real bond and community.
- It is most meaningful to follow the Holy Mass live and to follow our Holy Mass. Not because ours is better than other Masses! It is because we are all part of the same parish family and unite ourselves in prayer.
- If one is unable to follow the live-streamed Holy Mass, watching the recording at a later time or watching another recording still inspires prayer.
These difficult times present many limitations and pose many questions. Taking time to reflect is beneficial in discovering the substance and meaning of things we do: both in our civil life and in our faith life.