You sometimes encounter the charge that the Catholic Church wrongly “changed the sabbath”
from Saturday to Sunday. This claim is often made by Seventh-Day Adventists,
for example. But even if one isn’t accusing the Church
of wrongdoing, the question can still arise: Why do Catholics worship on Sunday rather
than Saturday? Here’s the story . . .
First, let’s clear away a potential source of confusion. While it’s true that people
sometimes speak of Sunday as “the Christian sabbath,” this is a loose way of speaking.
Strictly speaking, the sabbath is the day it always was–Saturday–though it should
be noted that traditionally Jewish people have celebrated the sabbath from sundown on
Friday to sundown on Saturday. Sunday is a distinct day, which follows the
sabbath. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every
week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s
Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s
eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and
what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ.
That same paragraph explains why we celebrate on Sunday. For Christians the ceremonial observance
of Sunday replaces that of the sabbath. Properly speaking, we’re not celebrating the sabbath
on Sunday. We’re celebrating something else, but it’s something that the sabbath points
toward. What we are celebrating instead of the sabbath
is “the Lord’s day.” That’s something Christians have celebrated
since the first century. In fact, in the very first chapter of Revelation, we read that
John experienced the inaugural vision of the book on “the Lord’s day.” He writes:
I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and
the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the
testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and
I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet [Revelation 1:9-10].
And he goes on to describe the vision of Jesus Christ he received.
For our purposes, the important thing to note is that he speaks of the Lord’s day as an
already-established thing. He expects his readers to know what it is.
So, when is it? The first Christians commonly spoke of Jesus
Christ as “the Lord,” and the Lord’s day is Jesus Christ’s day–the day he rose from the
dead and his tomb was found empty. That’s the day after the sabbath, or Sunday.
In Matthew’s gospel we read: Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of
the first day of the week, Mary Mag’dalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher.
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who
was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where
he lay [Matthew 28:1, 5-6]. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead on
the first day of the week is something stressed by all four gospels:
And that’s why Christians celebrate the Lord’s day. The Catechism explains:
Jesus rose from the dead “on the first day of the week.” Because it is the “first day,”
the day of Christ’s Resurrection recalls the first creation. . . . For Christians it has
become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s day (he kuriake hemera,
dies dominica), Sunday. We can confirm that the early Christians were
meeting on the first day of the week from the letters of St. Paul, because he tells
the Corinthians to take up a collection on that day of the week so that they won’t have
to take up a collection when he arrives. He says:
Now concerning the contribution for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so
you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you
is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need
not be made when I come [1 Corinthians 16:1-2]. He expects the collection to already be taken
up by the time he arrives so that they don’t have to get people to give at that point.
This indicates that the early Christians were meeting on the first day of the week, celebrating
the Lord’s day. Does that mean that no Christians in the first
century ever celebrated the sabbath? No. Many Jewish Christians celebrated both
the sabbath and Sunday in the first century, just as many also practiced the Jewish dietary
laws and ritual circumcision and offered sacrifices in the Temple.
St. Paul himself went to synagogue services on the sabbath so that he could preach the
message of Jesus to his Jewish countrymen, for that is where and when they would gather
together. But Paul is clear that sabbath observance
is not binding on Christians. He addresses this very directly in the letter
to the Colossians, where he writes: And you, who were dead in trespasses and the
uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all
our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this
he set aside, nailing it to the cross. . . . Therefore let no one pass judgment on you
in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.
These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ [Colossians
2:13-17]. When St. Paul refers to the bond which stood
against us with its legal demands, he is referring to the Law of Moses. Christ cancelled this
bond. That is why he says not to let anyone pass judgment on us in questions of food and
drink–what is kosher and what isn’t. And he says not to let anyone judge us with
regard to keeping a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. Those are the three types of
days on the Jewish liturgical calendar: the annual feasts (like Yom Kippur), the monthly
new moon, and the weekly sabbath. All of these things had a symbolic value,
which pointed forward to Christ, but now that the substance which cast the shadow has come–Christ
himself–the things pointing forward to him are no longer needed.
The Church Fathers agree. Thus in the early A.D. 100s, we find St. Ignatius of Antioch
writing: Those who lived according to the old order
of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s day, in
which our life is blessed by him and by his death [Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the
Magnesians 9:1]. So let’s loop back to our original question
of whether the Catholic Church “changed the sabbath.” From what we’ve seen, it didn’t.
There was no Medieval pope or council who said, “We’re now going to celebrate the sabbath
on Sunday.” The weekly sabbath is the day it always was–Saturday–the
day before the Lord’s day. What’s different is that Jewish Christians
are no longer obligated to celebrate the sabbath, because Jesus Christ himself fulfilled it
and all the other Old Testament ceremonies and instituted the New Covenant.
And he had the authority to do that, for as he himself told us:
The Son of man is lord of the sabbath [Matthew 12:8].
Of course, Gentile Christians were never obligated to celebrate the sabbath in the first place,
because the Law of Moses was given to the Jewish people and was only binding on them
(in contrast to God’s eternal, moral law, which is binding on everyone).
What we are obliged to celebrate is the Lord’s day, which fulfills the principles that were
contained within the sabbath, including the need to set aside adequate time for rest and
worship. But there wasn’t a Medieval pope or council
who instituted that, either. As we’ve, seen, it’s something that dates from the New Testament
age itself. Thus the Catechism states: This practice of the Christian assembly dates
from the beginnings of the apostolic age. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds the faithful
“not to neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but to encourage one another”