When to Celebrate?/2: The Day of the Lord (CCC 1166-1167)

Column on Liturgical Theology; Coordinator: Father Mauro Gagliardi

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By Natale Scarpitta*

ROME, MAY 16, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The whole liturgical year flows from the regular rhythm of successive Sundays in which the Church, in the course of the centuries, has gathered in liturgical assembly to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ. “Sunday is the pre-eminent day for the liturgical assembly, when the faithful gather” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1167).

But why Sunday, specifically? The answer has its profound roots in the New Testament. According to the unanimous testimony of the Gospels, “on the first day of the week” the Lord resurrected and appeared first to the women and then to the disciples (cf. Mark 16:2.9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1.19). On the same day Jesus manifested himself to the disciples of Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:13-35) and then to the eleven Apostles (cf. Luke 24:36; John 20:19) and gave them the Holy Spirit (cf. John 20:22-23). Eight days later the Risen One met with his own again (cf. John 20:26). It was again Sunday  when, fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, under the form of “a mighty wind” and “fire” (Acts 2:23) was poured out on the Apostles gathered with Mary in the Cenacle.

Staying in the realm of Scripture, it is important to note that in Revelation (cf. 1:10) we find the only neo-testamentary statement of the new name that is attributed to the “first day of the week.” It is “the day of the Lord – Kyriake hemera” (cf. also Didache, 14,1), in Latin dies dominicus, from which stems precisely “domenica”(Sunday).

Beginning with the Lord’s Resurrection, the first Christians, in the expectation of the Savior’s glorious return, manifested their faithful belonging to Christ by gathering every Sunday for the “breaking of the bread.” Numerous are the sources that attest to the Apostolic origin of this practice. We find a testimony of it already in the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (cf. 16:2) and in the Book of the Acts (cf. 20:7-8). Then Saint Ignatius of Antioch presented Christians significantly as iuxta dominicam viventes (Letter to the Magnesians, 9, 1), or those who live in keeping with Sunday. Saint Jerome described Sunday as “the day of Christians, our day” (In die dominica Paschae, II, 52). Bardesane, an Eastern author  of the beginning of the 3rd century, said that in every region the faithful already then regularly sanctified Sunday (cf. Dialogo sul destino, 46). Also Tertullian does not hesitate to affirm that on Sunday “we celebrate every week the feast of our Pasch” (De sollemnitate paschali, 7). At the beginning of the 5th century, Pope Innocent I wrote: “We celebrate Sunday because of the venerable resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, not only at Easter, but in every weekly cycle” (Epist. ad Decentium, XXV, 4, 7).

A heroic testimony of this liturgical practice, consolidated since Apostolic times, comes to us from Abitene, where 49 martyrs, surprised on a Sunday in their attempt to celebrate the Eucharist (something that was prohibited by Diocletian), did not hesitate to face death exclaiming: “Sine dominico non possumus,” that is, they could not live without celebrating the day of the Lord. They were aware that their profound identity was manifested by celebrating the Eucharist on the memorial day of Christ’s Resurrection.

Equally rich is the image that connotes Sunday as “day of the sun.” Christ is the light of the world (cf. John 9:5; cf. also 1:4-5.9), “the day [that] shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79); “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). Thus the day in which we commemorate the radiance of his Resurrection marks the luminous epiphany of his glory.

In the liturgy, in fact, we sing: “O first and last day, radiant and splendid day of the triumph of Christ.” Sunday is the day in which we celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death; the day that brings the first creation to fulfillment and, at the same time, inaugurates the new creation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). In the weekly succession of days, Sunday, in addition to being the first day, also represents the eighth: this, in the symbology dear to the Fathers of the Church, indicates the last day, the eschatological, which does not decline. Pseudo-Eusebius of Alexandria described wonderfully the day of the Lord as the “lord of days” (cf. Sermon 16).

From all this it emerges that Sunday is not the day of remembrance, which recalls nostalgically a past event. Rather, it is the actual celebration of the living presence of Christ dead and risen in the Church, his Bride and his Mystical Body.

Recalling vigorously the inalienable ecclesial value of Sunday, the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches that, in the image of the first community of disciples delineated in the Acts, on Sunday “the faithful must come together to listen to the Word of God and to participate in the Eucharist, and thus recall the Passion, Resurrection and Glory of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God who regenerated them for a living hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (n. 106).

Hence, the celebration of the weekly Pasch is the fundamental pillar of the whole life of the Church (cf. CCC, 2177) because realized in it is the sanctification of the people of God, until the day that will not decline, the eternal and definitive Easter of God with his creatures.

*Father Natale Scarpitta, a priest of the Archdiocese of Salerno-Campagna-Acerno, is doing doctoral studies in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome.