The Weekend Predicament

The Weekend Predicament

Dn Jason Ketz

What is the significance of Saturday and Sunday to Christians?

What do the scriptures say about each of these days?

How to we celebrate each day?

Ask a group of six Christians (Orthodox, ”˜orthodox’ or otherwise) these questions, and you’ll likely receive seven different answers, but all will be based on a number of presuppositions and even misconceptions that most Christians hold about both days that form our weekend. An understanding of sacred time is critical If we have any hopes of thinking of our faith and our worship as anything more than a “Sunday thing.,” And what better place to start than by exploring the significance of the two holy days that bookend our every week: Sunday and Saturday.likely receive seven different answers. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion about the unique significance of both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Nearly all of us are guilty of some measure of transference of Sabbath characteristics to Sunday observance, so that, to some degree we observe Sunday as a type of New Sabbath.  In other words, Sunday – the Lord’s day – is what the Sabbath was. This transference was made law by the Emperor Constantine,[1] but even in recent generations, long after the fall of the Byzantine Empire and outside any religious states, Christians have continued to treat Sunday as a day of rest – a Christian version of Sabbath Observance. Many are actually no longer aware that the Sabbath is (still!) Saturday, which is explicitly not the Day of Resurrection.  Even stating this fact does little to clarify or resolve our confusion about the Christian weekend, and perhaps only forces this issue to a head.


Origins of the Sabbath

The Seventh Day has a long history of sanctity in the Old Testament, earning a place in both the Decalogue (Exod 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15) and in the Creation story (Gen 2:3).  This day was given as a day of rest; a reminder that the Lord delivered Israel from the hand of the Egyptians. This command, while certainly a gift, is nonetheless given by God with every expectation that the Sabbath would be observed. And the day’s sanctity is established not merely by law, but also by divine action: God himself is shown keeping the first Sabbath, resting after creation was completed in six days. God sanctifies the Sabbath by blessing it (Exod 20:11) and keeping it (Gen 2:2-3).

The Sabbath was not just for Jewish people, either. The Sabbath rest applies to the foreigner and sojourner as well as to the Israelite (Deut 5:14. The same is true for the Sabbath years and the Jubilee set forth in Leviticus 25). Nor was the Sabbath a simple remembrance of the past. It had a distinctly forward-looking, messianic character. Keeping the Sabbath allows the celebrants to participate in the saving act of God,[2] and to look forward to the final fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, described (for instance) in Isaiah 61:1-3 (a passage heard also at the beginning of Christ’s ministry in the Gospel of Luke, 4:18-19). In short, the day becomes a weekly celebration of the passover, always coupled with anticipation of the Messianic age to come. This was the seventh day; the one uniquely holy day of the week, as the Old Testament established it.

Sunday and the Resurrection

resurrectionUntil the resurrection of Christ, the first day of the week was not set aside as uniquely significant, but in the Old Testament, it was grouped with all of the first six days of the week, and recognized primarily as ”˜not Sabbath.’ It is only through the resurrection – and specifically through the belief that the resurrection happened on the First Day of the week – that Sunday became significant for worship and theology.[3] And just like the Sabbath, this change required an act of God. Just as God’s resting on the Sabbath after creation sanctified the Seventh Day, our Lord’s Resurrection before the dawn on the first day of the week (Mk 16:2) sanctifies the First Day – the Lord’s Day, which is also the Roman Sun-day. Very quickly within the Christian tradition,[4] the faithful gather to worship on this newly-sanctified Sunday (the Lord’s Day), which is regarded with a great deal of solemnity. The worship is not precisely Sabbath observance, but there was a celebration of the Eucharist in some form; some type of Agape meal, overlayed with remembrance and participation in the New Testament “Last Supper” shared by Christ and his disciples. Additionally, the Passover was not explicitly remembered, but the Lord’s Passion was, and Christians have long drawn parallels between the Exodus and the Passion and Resurrection. And again, this had quickly developed into a weekly (and not an annual) cycle. In other words, the Passion and Resurrection was not merely a replacement for the atonement sacrifice, but an event which the faithful could regularly participate in. This pattern in the earliest Christian communities of weekly worship and anamnesis of historical events shows the very clear ritual parallels between Jewish Sabbaths and Christian Sundays: “the Sabbath became for the Israelites the weekly extension of the annual Passover, [just as] Sunday later became for many Christians the weekly commemoration of the annual Easter-Sunday.”[5]

However, while the Resurrection certainly sanctifies the First Day of the week, it does not deprive Saturday of any level of sanctity, and the Resurrection certainly does not contradict the Sabbath or the commandment to keep it. In the Resurrection, we now have two holy days established by God.  Concerns over Christian observance of the Sabbath arise not in discussions of the Resurrection, but in discussions of Jesus’ ministry, especially as depicted in the Gospels.

Jesus and the Sabbath

While the Resurrection does not contradict the Sabbath, Jesus’ ministry certainly may have. Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as working miracles on the Sabbath, which was seen by the religious leaders of his day as a violation of the command to rest on the Sabbath. This is a heavy accusation, which has received a great deal of scrutiny over the centuries: did Jesus actually violate the Sabbath? Did he reform it? Or was he working within some technical nuance or exception that might permit his actions? In response to the technicalities at work within Judaism at the time of Christ, rare exceptions could be made for Sabbath observance. such as life or death situations, or situations which require an immediate action (for those interested, 1 and 2 Maccabees offer opposing viewpoints on Sabbath observance in times of war). Jesus mentions the ’emergency situation’ exemption himself in one of his exchanges with the Pharisees before he works a miracle (Lk 6:9). But while Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees on their own terms in arguing this technicality, Jesus’ actions were not in response to life or death scenarios.  In other words, Jesus’ healing miracles and actions on the Sabbath could have waited a day. Take the man with the withered hand, for instance (Luke 6). Waiting a day to heal him certainly would not have jeopardized this man’s life in some way. So Jesus’ decision to heal this man unquestionably violated the Pharisee’s expectation for man to literally rest on the Sabbath, and in their teaching, the healing could wait until Sunday.[6]


The Sabbath and the Messiah

If we see Jesus as a mere man working miracles in Galilee, then we are forced to acknowledge that he did, in fact, violate the Sabbath precepts. But if we attribute the healing actions to God, and moreover, if we willingly recognize Jesus as the Christ of God, then his actions on the Sabbath are no longer out of line. In fact, one could reasonably suggest that such Sabbath actions would be expected of (or indicative of) the Messiah. The Messiah is bringing a fulfillment of what was begun, so to speak, with the exodus. So does the Messiah keep the Sabbath? Does God? This is another riddle in which Christ engaged the Pharisees. People are born and die on Saturday, and since life and death are the work of God, God is therefore at work on the Sabbath. Would not his Messiah do the same, in the process of inaugurating a permanent age of Sabbath or Jubilee for the faithful?

Jesus never explained his ministry in such terms, but his conduct suggests it. Christ’s Messianic treatment of Sabbath is most obvious in the healing of the woman in Luke 13, Christ three times declares the woman “freed” using the Greek λύειν, which means to free or loosen, as in ”˜freed from bondage to the Egyptians’ – the main theme of Sabbath observation. And our Lord did state that he was reforming the Law (or adherence to it), of which the Sabbath is a part. As he indicated in his Sermon on the Mount (esp Matt 5:17, 21ff) and elsewhere in his discourses, Jesus clearly feels that the commandments in Scripture may be honored, without keeping the subsequent precepts espoused by the Pharisees of his day.[7]  Therefore, while the Sabbath is not kept by Christ as it was expected to be by the religious leaders, he is reforming and fulfilling it for the faithful, and not nullifying it. He certainly kept the day Holy. 

However, even when we accept the possibility that Jesus did nothing to contradict the Sabbath, we are still faced with subsequent Christian tradition in which the Sabbath is deliberately set aside in favor of the Lord’s Day. Since we are in no position to break with such a long-standing tradition, what then are we to do with our Saturday?

In light of the incarnation, it is now possible to honor a day and keep it holy, and still do ”˜work’ (or at least ‘ministry’). We Christians are, in fact, given an alternative day for salvation and rest, different from the Sabbath in the Law. The letter to the Hebrews explains that, instead of the Sabbath, we now have today as the day of our salvation (cf Heb 3-4, especially the reasoning which culminates at 4:7-12).[8] This is a highly significant change of perspective. In suggesting that the coming age of the Messiah has, in fact, already come, every day has a character of holiness (i.e. freedom; realized salvation) that the Sabbath alone had previously (cf Heb 3:13). Because we are now between Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection, time is sanctified somewhat differently than it was before the incarnation. It should follow, then, that our engagement with sacred time would also differ from the past.

And in this new, eschatological sanctification of time, we are also given another, liturgical oportunity to observe the Sabbath. Saturday has long been given over by the Church as a day of remembrance of the departed – those who have fallen asleep, and are at rest, awaiting the Resurrection. So while the Sabbath is not kept by Christians in a weekly rhythm, we absolutely keep this pattern within God’s economy of human rest in expectation of God’s action (Sabbath) followed by God’s act of salvation (resurrection) wrought on the First Day.  Nowhere is this rhythm more clear than on Holy Saturday, when we celebrate Christ keeping the Sabbath in the tomb, after declaring from the cross that “it is finished” (Jhn  19:30, perhaps better rendered ”˜it is accomplished’), and before rising and thereby making all things new (Rev 21:5).


Saturday is emphatically still the Sabbath, whether or not we are expected to rest on it. And Sunday is certainly a new day of rejoicing, but it is an active one. Sunday is a day of ministry and a day of worship. Although the decision of the Council of Laodicaea (Canon 29),[9]  served to transfer the command to rest from Saturday to Sunday, there is no scriptural basis for this decision. The commandment still stands within the Decalogue, and the only modifier is perhaps the Christian expectation that we are to keep today (every day) in this manner – not as a literal day of physical rest, but as a celebration of our salvation in the Resurrection, an opportunity to rejoice and give thanks to our creator and redeemer. So, despite a long history against Sabbath-keeping, Saturday is  still uniquely holy within scripture, and on some level we should realize this. Furthermore, for 21st century Christians, there may well be a good pastoral reason for keeping certain time within our week as Holy Time, in which we do pause from our busy schedules to rest, reflect upon and rejoice in our salvation. I suggest this not to undermine our venerable traditions or the holy men and women who have established them, but in recognition of the value of rhythm and sacred time within our lives. Even if our Lord has fulfilled Sabbath expectations for us, and time is differently Holy after the Resurrection, and even if synodal decree has released us from any Old Testament obligations, that does not mean that we would not benefit from the practice of keeping time – weekly time – as sacred and specifically reserved for worship and rest – especially time in our own homes, outside of a Church building.[10] The Labor Movement has worked hard in past generations to establish the “weekend.” We would do well to take advantage of both of these Holy Days, which have been indelibly marked on even our secular calendars, as opportunities for worship, refreshment, and celebration.

[1] Carlyle B Haynes, (The attempt to change God’s Holy Day…) From Sabbath to Sunday (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishers, 1928), pp 36-46.

[2] Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian Univ. Press, 1977), 23.

[3] It is likely that Sunday worship by Christians also had an anti-pagan element to it (worshiping the Son of God on the day of the Sun). See Haynes, From Sabbath to Sunday, 39. However, the antiquity of Sunday worship (seen in 1 Cor 16:2, Acts 20:7, Rev 1:10, then in post-apostolic literature as early as Justin Martyr [First Apology, chapter 67] and the Didache [14.1]) deserves consideration as an independent and genuinely Christian ritual.

[4] This topic receives a full scholarly treatment by Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday 91-131.

[5] Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, 23.

[6] Many Christians would find it distasteful, and even ”˜wrong’ that the Law should be upheld and an act of mercy and healing be delayed in favor of ritual observance and ”˜inaction.’ Of course, such a judgment is the direct offspring of our allegiance to the Gospels as offering the ”˜correct’ interpretation of Jewish Law. But more than merely recognizing our bias in the matter, we must take care to recognize just how slippery is the slope on which such reasoning sits. The argument that the Sabbath did not need to be literally upheld because Jesus taught something better leads immediately to arguments against elaborate Christian rituals, hierarchical organization, canons and ”˜high Church’ worship. Most Orthodox are understandably upset by such arguments, so we should use caution when discussing their corollaries.

[7] Bacchiocchi, 34-6.

[8] Obviously, if a Sabbath rest remains for Christians, and we are to honor ”˜today’ as a holy day, we will inevitably have to work on some of these ”˜todays’ that are being so highly regarded in Hebrews.

[9] Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol 14.

[10] Here I appeal to the insights of a Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1951), who on pp 27-32 offers a beautiful contemplation on the value of sacred time and the need for freedom from our technology, which although Jewish, seems entirely compatible with a Christian mindset.