Monday, May 6, 2019

The Glorious First and Eighth Day of the Week

Dear Parish Faithful,


In St. John's account of the first appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples as a group (Jn. 20:19-31), we find the liturgical structure of the Church as it exists to this very day in his account of this incredible encounter. For St. John records: "On the evening of that day, the first day of the week ..." (20:19). The first day of the week is the day after the Sabbath, and that would be our Sunday.

It was on this day that the risen Christ appeared to his bewildered, dejected, and frightened disciples in order to convince them that He was risen from the dead. "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord" (20:20). Jesus returned to further convince the unbelieving Thomas that He was indeed risen. And significantly, this next appearance was "eight days later" (20:26). Which means, of course, the following Sunday.

Since those memorable two days until today, we use the language - with all of its symbolic meaning - of the First and Eighth Day of the week for our liturgical assemblies on the Lord's Day - Sunday. In a deep sense, the first day of the week is the eighth day, if we understand the "eighth day" as taking us beyond the seven days of the week as a kind of anticipation of the Kingdom of God which is beyond the "time" of this world.

St. Gregory Palamas (+1359), Archbishop of Thessaloniki, in a homily entitled "On the Sabbath and the Lord's Day," explains it like this:

You will see that it was Sunday when the disciples assembled and the Lord came to them. On Sunday He approached them for the first time as they were gathered together and eight day later, when Sunday came around again, He appeared to their assembly. Christ's Church continually reflects these gatherings by holding its meetings mostly on Sundays and we come among you and preach what pertains to salvation and lead you towards piety and a godly way of life.

Yet, as a pastor, St. Gregory continued his homily with this admonition:

Let no one out of laziness or continuous worldly occupations miss these holy Sunday gatherings, which God Himself handed down to us, lest he be justly abandoned by God and suffer like Thomas, who did not come at the right time. If you are detained and do not attend on one occasion, make up for it the next time, bringing yourself to Christ's Church. Otherwise you may remain uncured, suffering unbelief in your soul because of deeds or words, and failing to approach Christ's surgery to receive, like divine Thomas, holy healing.

To our modern sensibilities, even these words of pastoral admonition may seem over-stated if not harsh to us today. But the saint was trying to reinforce the sense of commitment that the believer needs to have to the Lord's Day Liturgy which brings us directly into the presence of the Risen Christ - "Christ is in our midst!" - as we joyfully exclaim at the Liturgy.

St. Gregory's homily clearly places commitment over convenience. This is our first priority. He was writing to a Christian society that was not as pluralistic or diverse as our own, there is no doubt. That means that the pressure for us is "out there" to conform to those "worldly occupations" that St. Gregory warns us about. Today, that could even have a bearing on our presence at the Sunday morning Liturgy. As one example from among many: How many Orthodox parents have to deal with their child's sports events scheduled these days on Sunday morning? So, we can see that the challenges are out there.

In the light of the Gospel revelation about the glorious first and eighth day of the week, we should at least think hard about any such choices.

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