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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"A Brief History of Sunday" (Justo L. González)

TITLE: A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation
AUTHOR: Justo L. González
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017, (176 pages).

He has written about the history of the Church. He has also written about the way we interpret history, how history is essentially being re-written through re-interpretation. Now, the renowned historian has decided to focus on the topic of Sunday. He differentiates it from the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) or the way the Seventh Day Adventists treat Sundays. There is no historical warrant to call Sunday as the Sabbath Day. Simply put, author and professor Justo L. González prefers to call it a "gift." Covering the periods from the first century to the modern practice of Sundays, the author painstakingly avoids describing the positions of either for or against Sabbatarianism, the practice of justifying Sundays as Sabbath days. For that, he points us to books by Samuele Bacchiocchi (for) and Willy Rordorf (against), which are formidable resources that argue for their respective positions. This book is about the history of this seventh day, also known as the Lord's Day in Christian circles. It is not about the Sabbath. Neither is it about the rituals of religious activities. Optimistically, González sees Sunday as pointing us to the "eighth day," the time in the future where we will rest, see, love, and praise.

He begins with the Pre-Constantine period where he traces the history of Sunday back to the time where people understood day and night. The seven days a week originated from the ancient Semitic and Mesopotamian societies. There was an eight day week used during the Roman times but due to Hellenistic influences, the seven-day week took shape. For Jewish Christians, it is a particular challenge to decide when to meet: Saturday or Sunday? When should they break bread together with fellow Jews? González believes they did on the Sabbath day. In fact, they did communion every day of the week! While theologians generally are united with regard to the Jewish Sabbath, they hold diverse views about when the Lord's Day (Sunday) was celebrated. Some see the Sunday as Sabbath while others separate the two. A third perspective was to see the Lord's Day as a precursor to the "true Sabbath" when Christ comes again. The key reason why Sundays have great significance for Christians is because it was the day Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead. Thus, Christians celebrate Resurrection of the Lord every Sunday. So there are many names for Sundays: "The Lord's Day," "Resurrection Sunday," "Christian Sabbath," "First Day of the Week," "New creation," etc. Many of the issues come from the questions regarding the similarities and differences surrounding traditional Jewish events like the Passover, the Seder, and the Sabbath. González discusses the various Christian practices on Sundays as well. There is a history of how some use it for fasting while others see it as celebrating and feasting. Other practices include prayer, kneeling, Scripture reading, worshiping, and so on. On the last point about worship, it is hard to trace what exactly the early believers did. Generally, the worship would comprise the sacrament of Word and Table. In spite of the lack of specifics through history, González is able to highlight seven helpful hints about what the early believers did on Sundays.

During Constantine's reign, there was a more authoritative direction with regard to Sundays. The seven-day week became standard. Constantine's edict about Sunday being declared officially as a day of rest and non-work came into effect on March 7th, 321. Constantine in fact was a devotee of the Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun god, which led to many to point out that "sun-day" has a pagan origin. Other decrees include: illegal to haul Christians up to courts on this day; proclaiming Sunday as the "Lord's Day," and prohibition of certain other activities. Soon buildings and official houses of worship are constructed. While previously, the early believers grapple with Jewish practices and Christianity, after Constantine, it is now with Roman culture. González spends time looking at the historical liturgical development so as to help us appreciate our contemporary liturgy. He includes a chapter discussing the various points of view regarding the Sabbath.

By the Middle Ages, Sundays have become more developed, and a catch-all day from religious piety to social events such as feasting and funerals. While the Eucharist continues to be celebrated, there is more room for praying and for playing. There are prohibitions against work, obscene activities and bawdy behaviours. With the monastic influence, especially in places closer to monasteries, the purpose of Sundays gradually includes prayer, meditation, and meaningful pleasure. González also gives us a list of Middle Age developments for Sundays. He does the same for the Reformation, British Puritanism, the rise of the Seventh-Day Sabbatarianism, and the modern era.

González sees the patterns of history being cyclical, which lends added meaning to the phrase "history repeats itself." Without understanding history, we will either be re-inventing the wheel or building up new structures devoid if history. By understanding the history and development of Sundays, we are better able to plan our modern liturgy and not repeat the mistakes of the past. In fact, many of the modern day questions surrounding our practice of Sundays can be addressed such as:

  • Is Sunday the same as the Sabbath Day?
  • What should we do on the Sabbath? Lord's Day?
  • What is the significance of Sundays?
  • How should we view the nature of rest and worship on Sundays?
  • Is is ok to work on Sunday?
  • What kind of worship is appropriate for the Lord's Day?
These and many more can be wisely dealt with through the study and understanding of the historical developments. For that reason, I believe this book will be beneficial to anyone seeking to change or refresh their liturgy and activities on Sundays. Who knows, our modern ways of doing Church might very well be a lesson for our future generations, just like what we are learning from our predecessors in this book. Another great resource from a renowned historian. 

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans Publishing and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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