16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
At last it's Sunday!
Why is Sunday considered a special day? Children, of course, are happy with it because there is no school. For many adults, it is a day away from work. That is, unless one brings work home and turns the day into a time to 'catch up.' Some people argue that the best television news commentators appear on programs that are aired on Sunday morning. Then, in the afternoon, one can watch 'the game.' It is obvious that biblical authors had something entirely different in mind when they emphasized the importance of the Sabbath.
Sabbath and Sunday are not the same. The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is marked by Jews, while Sunday, the first day of the week, is regularly observed by Christians. Sabbath observance is found with two different traditions. The first and probably more familiar account is found in Exodus. There it links the Sabbath with God's 'rest' at the completion of creation. Today's reading is from Deuteronomy. Here the emphasis is not on the reason for Sabbath observance itself, but on the rest from labor granted to all, slaves as well. Here the regulation is grounded in the theme of deliverance. As God showed favor to the Israelites when they were slaves, so should the Israelites show favor to other slaves
Refraining from work on the Sabbath probably has little to do with work itself. Rather, normal activity ceases so that attention can be turned to God and the things of God. Rest from the kind of labor required for survival became a way of acknowledging total dependence on God. Showing leniency to slaves was a further reminder of absolute reliance on God. It was the attitudes expressed more than the practices themselves that demonstrated the people's religious devotion.
One of the most bitterly contested issues Jesus faced during his ministry was his apparent disregard for Sabbath observance. The Pharisees accused the disciples of 'reaping,' clearly a violation of Sabbath law. Referring to a story about David, Jesus reminds them that genuine human need supersedes even some religious laws. The Pharisees also censure Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Once again he insists that doing good is more important than rigid adherence to religious practice. Jesus does not disregard the Sabbath. Instead, he places concern for others distress above even authentic observance.
Early Christians marked Sunday as the day to celebrate the Eucharist. When they were finally separated from the synagogue, they observed Sunday alone as the Lord's Day. While Sunday was certainly the first day of the calendar week, it was also considered the 'eighth day,' the day inaugurating the 'new age' of fulfillment.
Today's readings highlight the importance of setting aside time as 'sacred time,' time that we commit to that mysterious power that brought us into this world and continues to sustain us in its love. It is so easy to be swept away in the rush of every day living, with all of its demands and the enjoyment that it offers. We need regular time to step back and reflect on how we have been blessed by a gracious God. 'The Lord's Day' is just such a time.
Second, we need time to remember that, as weighty as our work might be, we are not the motivating force that holds everything together or moves everything to its completion. The world along with our work can be carried on without us. It is so easy to forget this when we are consumed with our own importance. We need to step back at times and take our hands off the wheel, or the computer, or whatever it is that we operate, and realize that the whole world is in God's hands and not in ours. 'The Lord's Day' is a time for such reflection.
Third, devotional practices are meant to set the Lord's Day apart from all other days as holy, and to provide opportunities to express our religious sentiments. These practices are meant to be vehicles of grace. However, when they are regarded as simply regulations to follow, they can become irrelevant and burdensome, as they seem to be pictured in the gospel account. 'The Lord's Day' is meant to be a day of genuine religious celebration.
It is up to us to make sure that the special character of Sunday is not lost. It is not simply another day in a routine week. It is sacred time, set aside for God and the things of God.
Dianne Bergant writes for the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.