Project Canterbury

Dancing before the Lord
and Other Sermons
Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York

by the Reverend Arthur Ritchie

Reprinted from "Catholic Champion."

New York: The Guild of St. Ignatius, 1892.

Sermon XII.
The Sabbath Idea.

"And He said unto them, The Sabbath was made for man. and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath." St. Mark II. 27-28.

There is hardly a more striking contrast to be found in Holy Scripture than that of the Sabbath idea in the Old Testament and in the New. In the Old Testament nothing is more rigidly insisted upon than the due observance of the Sabbath rest, absolute cessation from work. We read in the book of Numbers how an Israelite was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. He no doubt wanted a little fire and thought it no harm to pick up enough wood for the purpose; but he was taken in the act and brought before Moses. Then the Lord was consulted about the matter and His answer was, "The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him without the camp," He could not have been more severely punished if he had committed murder. Yet so soon as our Lord had risen from the dead, and sent forth His Apostles to convert the world, we find those Apostles simply setting at nought the old Sabbath law, and teaching that it was in no wise binding upon Christians. The Master had not Himself said this, so far as Holy Scripture records for us His words, but St. Paul is very clear upon the matter in writing to the Colossians: he says, "Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." It is quite true that Saturday was for a long time kept in the Christian Church, and that the Jewish Christians generally observed the Sabbath so long as the Judaic influence prevailed in Christendom, but it was understood to stand on the same ground with circumcision, no longer a matter of obligation, and by no means to be laid upon the Gentile converts.

This is all the more remarkable because we are wont to make the distinction between the ceremonial law of the Jews and the moral law, holding the former to have given place to the Christian system, but the latter to have remained. The law of the Sabbath being the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, might well be included in the moral code, yet the early Church in Apostolic days deliberately by its practice eliminated it from the moral precepts and declared its obligation to be at an end.

One may say in reply to this that the Church did not abrogate the fourth commandment but only substituted the first day of the week for the seventh, so that Sunday became the Christian Sabbath. Now this is very popularly assumed, but there are two fatal objections to it.

1. The first is that for many centuries in the East and for several centuries in the West, Saturday and Sunday were both observed by Christians. In the East this was distinctly a survival of the Jewish spirit in Christianity. In the Apostolical Constitutions the Sabbath and the Lord's Day are treated as almost co-ordinate. In one place it is written "Keep the Sabbath and the Lord's Day as feasts; for the one is the memorial of the Creation, the other of the Resurrection." This shows that although the strictness of the fourth commandment was not applied to the observance of Saturday in early Eastern Christianity, that day was still observed in continuation of the Sabbath idea of Judaism, so that Sunday was not thought of as a substitute for the old Sabbath. And in the West Saturday was for several centuries kept as a fast distinctly with the purpose of protesting against the Sabbatarian idea, so that in no sense could Sunday be looked upon as taking the place of the Jewish Sabbath.

2. In the second place it is evident that with perhaps the exception of a few extreme Sabbatarians no one ever thinks of keeping Sunday according to the literalness of the fourth commandment, nor has it been so at any time in the Christian Church. The law reads "Thou shalt do no manner of work," and that this was to be understood literally, with the exception of works of mercy, the whole history of Judaism proves. We have effectually abrogated the fourth commandment even if applied to the Lord's Day when we do our ordinary household work on Sunday, and have our meals cooked, for certainly this would not have been tolerated in the case of the Jews, unless we can show that some enactment of God or of the Church by His authority has interpreted the provision of cessation from work so as materially to modify it. No such authorized interpretation of the old law can anywhere be found either in the New Testament or in the history of early Christianity, therefore we have no right to assume that the Church has substituted Sunday for Saturday, pr that the fourth commandment must now be applied to the Lord's Day as to a Christian Sabbath.

But a most extraordinary thing is the quiet way in which the Church released all of her children from the obligation of keeping Saturday as a day of rest, in Apostolic times. How dared St. Paul, for example, set aside the commandment given by God at Sinai? I think we must find our answer in the words of the text, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath; therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath." See, in passing, what high prerogative our Lord takes to Himself, the authority to set aside the law of Moses". The most extraordinary thing however is that the Church unhesitatingly assumes the fulness of her Master's authority in the matter. She takes literally the words "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth," and "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you." There are those in these days who do not like to acknowledge the plenary authority of the Church to regulate the earthly affairs of Christ's Kingdom. Yet if it were not so how highhanded a deed is this whereby in her earliest days she annuls the obligation of the fourth commandment, and although God had said "Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day," tells her children the Sabbath is no more binding on Christians than is circumcision. The Church evidently believes in her own authority, and even Protestant Christians, so averse to acknowledging that authority in most things, acquiesce in this stupendous departure from the teaching of the old law, given by God Himself, that Saturday, the Hebrew Sabbath, has ceased to be a day of obligation.

This will perhaps be more intelligible if we digress so far as to inquire into the principle of the ancient Sabbath obligation. It was simply to be a day of rest, this seventh day of the week. The word Sabbath means rest. There is not a word in the fourth commandment about worship on the Sabbath. It is true that it bids men keep the Sabbath day holy, but it is evident the hallowing of it was only by cessation from all manner of work. In the worship of the Tabernacle and of the Temple there were indeed special sacrifices on the Sabbath, or rather the daily sacrifice was doubled, but there was no obligation on the part of the Israelites to attend and take part in these sacrifices, and to do so would have been impossible in Temple times, for only in Jerusalem might sacrifice be lawfully offered and many of the people lived several days journey from the Holy City. The synagogue services came in after the Babylonish Captivity, only about 500 years before our Lord, and were not provided for by the Law at all, only the devout rulers and teachers of the Jews introduced them that the people might spend the Sabbath more profitably than in mere idleness and merrymaking. Our Lord certainly sanctioned the synagogue system, but it was a human addition to the Divine institution of the Sabbath. That only called for absolute cessation from work. Now why? In the most direct sense in order that the slave and the ox and the ass might have a day of rest. We need not suppose however that the Israelite was wont to work so hard that this rest was really demanded in the interest of health. Indeed when the Sabbath rest was first enjoined the people were yet in the wilderness where their work must have been of the slightest. Again the land was to have its Sabbath, every seventh year to lie fallow, not probably because the land needed the rest, but "that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat."

It is not hard to see in all this a general provision for the continual acknowledgment of the Divine sovereignty. Man only had a right to the things of this world, and the fruits of his labour by the gift of God'. All things belonged to the Most High, and lest the Israelite should forget this, and come to fancy that what he had was his own and that he had no supreme Master over him, he was required to surrender one day of his time up to God, just as he must pay one-tenth of his substance to the service of God, as a perpetual reminder of the authority of Jehovah over him. It was the enforcement of the great lesson of obedience, and there is a pathos in the fact that the Sabbath observance as Divinely instituted was purely negative, "Thou shalt do no manner of work," for the human race was still under God's displeasure, still under the penalty of the first disobedience, and until that penalty had been removed man had simply to acknowledge himself the servant of his Maker without being able to praise and worship Him as a reconciled son, restored to his Father's favour. Therefore the law of cessation from work must be absolute, the principal of obedience to be enforced for its own sake, not as a means, as yet, to a higher end.

All this passed away so soon as our Lord had died upon the Cross. He paid the price of human sin and reconciled the Father to the world, so that no more as servants bound only to hard and fast submission to the Divine laws, but now as sons, well-beloved and wholly restored to favour, the children of men united with Christ might draw nigh to their heavenly Father with confidence, and with the sacrifice of thanksgiving. No wonder St. Paul who realized the pardon won for man by the Sacrifice of the Cross perhaps more fully than many others--no wonder, I say, that he so strongly insists upon the fact that the Sabbath is done away; that was a witness to man's alienation from God, but now there is reconciling and peace through the death of Christ.

But Christians did from the first keep Sunday as the Lord's Day. What was the significance of this? The weekly acknowledgment by praise and thanksgiving of the blessed redemption purchased for them by our Lord. Not in any vague or undefined way, however. Although we do not find any express command of Sunday observance, we do find the clearly defined ordinance of thanksgiving, the wonderful Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood concerning which He said, "This do in remembrance of me," and we find also the Church in Apostolic times confidently adopting, apparently with absolute unanimity, the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, as the Lord's Day, on which especially Christians should come together to offer that great Memorial; "Upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread!" It was celebrated no doubt on many other days, and in some places every day, but there is absolutely clear evidence that the great idea of Sunday observance in early Christian times was the meeting together of the faithful for the solemn celebration of the Eucharist, and this expressed very perfectly the Christian idea of man's relation to his Maker after redemption, and after he has availed himself of redemption by spiritual uniting to Christ in Holy Baptism. The reconciled children come to their Father's house and offer their great thanksgiving for His mercy, as He has taught them; then beseech Him with loving confidence to give them all those things they have need of for souls and bodies. The old Sabbath idea is altogether out of place here, the children are at home again, not in banishment.

And now another most noteworthy thing presents itself in the history of this matter. It is the tendency in the early Church to make Sunday a holiday, in order to honour the Resurrection of our Lord more highly. Apparently the first writer who urges cessation from week-day work on the Lord's Day is St. Irenaeus, at the end of the second century. Tertullian, a little later, writes, "On the Lord's day of Resurrection we ought to abstain from all habit and labour of anxiety, putting off even our business, lest we give place to the devil." As yet there is no thought of applying the Sabbath idea to Sunday, but only that the Lord's Day may become more glorious in men's eyes if kept as a holiday. The Emperor Constantine by imperial decree helps the observance of Sunday as a day of rest from ordinary work, and the Church everywhere takes up and encourages the idea. It was natural enough and suitable enough, but the singular thing about it is that neither the Councils nor the writers of the early centuries of Christianity make use of the fourth commandment,--they apparently do not even think of it--to enforce Sunday cessation from labour. How are we to explain this? I think by recognizing that the principle underlying the Sabbath rest and that underlying the Lord's Day rest are quite different the one from the other. The rest of the Sabbath was for its own sake, to assert the sovereignty of God over man, His absolute right to man's time and labour; therefore on His day of rest no work at all might be done. The Lord's Day rest, on the other hand, was simply that man's time and attention might be given to spiritual things, to praise and worship, especially to the offering of the Lord's Memorial, the Eucharist.

Nevertheless as time went on some of the Church's teachers began to see that the fourth commandment, with modifications, might be profitably used to inculcate the spiritual observance of Sunday with Divine sanction. It was not until mediaeval times that this idea found general acceptance, and in what one might call the dark ages the fourth commandment was most freely and fully applied to enforce general cessation from labour on the Lord's Day.

It is not to be forgotten indeed that the Church never lost sight of the difference in principle between Sabbath rest and Sunday rest. There was never the thought in the Catholic world that man might do no manner of work on Sunday, but only that he should do so little work as might be, and that he should not do such work as would interfere with attendance upon the Church's Services. It was abstention from work as a means to an end, not for the assertion of the principle that God required the whole day's possibilities of gain to be surrendered to Him. This is a very important modification of the commandment, and general acquiescence in it on the part of all Christians is the more remarkable because it rests upon no Divine word or Oecumenical Council but simply upon the common consent of Christendom. Great is the opinion of her own plenary authority on the part of the Church that can thus by her gradually developed tradition set aside most important parts of God's commandment, while yet using the rest of that commandment, to enforce, under Divine sanction, the observance of the Lord's Day.

The most striking thing of all, however, is this: that the Church should for centuries, in what one might call her purest and best days expressly repudiate the fourth commandment as binding upon her children, and then in her dark days take up that commandment again, modify its sense, and insist upon it as a Divine injunction to rest from labour on the Lord's Day, and that the whole Christian world since that time should have quietly acquiesced in this tremendous stretch of authority.

It demonstrates, as it seems to me, the living energy of God's Kingdom. It is not limited in its development to this period or that, to the first three centuries, nor yet to the period of the great General Councils. Just as Catholic Christendom has developed the Sabbath idea in its application to the Lord's Day, slowly, unconsciously at first, but surely and permanently, so has Catholic Christendom developed slowly and unconsciously forms of worship and of ceremonial observance which are the true fruit of the original teaching of the Apostolic age, and will surely endure. A forcible illustration of the same thing is found in the way in which Western Christendom has developed out of the original institution of the Eucharist for the great sacrifice and for communion, the only uses which the primitive Church knew of it, the beautiful and most edifying worship of the Reserved Sacrament and of Benediction. An ante-lucan Eucharist sufficed the Christian on the Lord's Day in the earliest times, now we delight to have every part of that holy day appropriated to some service of praise and worship, the early Communion, the eloquent Morning Prayers, the solemn Eucharist, the touching Evening Prayers, and the hearty, informal, night service. So has the robust wisdom of the Roman Communion given men the blessed privilege of that marvellous Sacramental Presence of our blessed Lord not only in the morning of Sunday, for Holy Communion and solemn worship of Eucharistic Offering, but in the afternoon of the Lord's Day in reverent Exposition and touching Benediction. Tell me that this is a development, that it was unknown to primitive Christianity! I grant it, but it is a development on sound and wholesome lines, the gradual realization by the Church of the wealth of the treasures with which she has been entrusted, even such a development as made men in the middle ages apply the spiritualized fourth commandment to the Lord's Day, a thing undreamed of in the primitive Church, and yet a thing for which you and I cannot be too thankful.

Yes, it is God's holy day of rest, not a rest of tear, of servile obedience because we are aliens from heaven, but a rest of joy and gladness from the ordinary occupations of life that our time and thought may be given to spiritual occupations, even to the work of Angels, the praising and blessing of the Most High. I pity the Christian man that can talk on Sunday about having done his duty because he has heard Mass, or about the unimportance of going to Church in the evening because he has been in the morning; who wants a part of his Sunday for his own pleasuring, instead of attending all the different services of the Church. Is that the spirit of children who have been brought back to their Father when they had lost Him, the spirit that should animate the returned prodigal welcomed back to the Father's house? If one be indeed worn out by a hard week's work, not his own fault because of too eager pursuit of gain, but because he is in subordinate position and must do the work assigned to him--if such an one should rest quietly at home on the afternoon of the Lord's Day after having attended Church in the morning, one could hardly find fault with him. But if it is not a question of weariness and rest at all, but of worldly amusement or attendance upon the services of the Church, it seems to me the Church has with truest wisdom, even in her dark ages, developed the application of the fourth commandment to the Lord's Day, and that she cannot cry with too much earnestness to us, Remember that thou keep holy the Lord's Day, ceasing from thine everyday work not that thou mayest be free for worldly pleasure, but that thou mayest fully engage in and enjoy the sublime offices of holy religion, in which thou canst come face to face with God Himself, and experience all the priceless privileges of the Christian name.

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