March 3, 2021: Celebrating 1,700 Years of Sundays “Off”

The Creation of the Sun and the Moon (detail), Master of Jean de Mandeville, in Historical Bible (Bible historiale; original sources in Latin), Paris, about 1360–70. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Ms. 1, vol. 1, fol. 5

It was March 3, exactly 1,700 years ago this year when Emperor Constantine decreed that the “venerable day of the sun,” the Roman dies solis, should be a day off, that is, a public holiday without labor (at least in the cities of the Empire). Christians had of course marked Sunday long before the year 321AD, as the day of Christ’s Resurrection. They had marked it such, however, while the day was a work-day. Constantine changed that, and Sunday now became recognized not only as a specifically Christian holy day but also as a day of public rest.

The meanings of this holy-day of Sunday shifted over the ensuing centuries. And ecclesial pronouncements and punishments show that whatever its meaning, the faithful did not always conform to living this day appropriately. The meanings of Sunday living also stretched outwards from Sunday as a day of prayer, and free from labor, to a day that also should be free of sexual relations, or shaving, or horse-riding, and free of various forms of entertainment, including cards, dancing, and alcohol. Moreover, the shape of Sunday will have differed significantly according to one’s station in life (in the broadest sense). The Sunday observance of a Puritan minister in New England, for example, might have been full of words; the Sunday observance of a 19th century Catholic housewife with a large family might well have been filled with food and its preparation.

And today? “Rest is radical,” a contemporary slogan, and a recent book proclaim. The latter advocates “Self-Care, Yoga, and Doing Less,” all for a list price of $ 24.95. The book promises to show how radical rest can help “boost physical health, and develop stronger emotional resilience.” Maybe for the early 21st century, in which we live and move and have our being, these wellness practices should have a place in today’s practice of Sunday for Christians. But ultimately, I suggest, the deepest meaning of Sunday for Christians cannot center on curating one’s own well-being and on fashioning a content, healthy, and resilient self. Sunday for us must be more than a private, leisure-filled, home-spa kind of day. Rather, the holy day of Sunday really is about a radical de-centering of the self, for the sake of re-centering ourselves on the One who alone is Holy.

Ultimately, the freedom from Sunday labor, instituted by Constantine 1,700 years ago, for Christians means freedom for that which is essential: turning to God in worship, ‘making time’ to praise, encountering the Holy One at the heart of the universe – and discovering ourselves re-centered, refreshed, and newly resilient in that.


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