Friday, July 18, 2014

Why Do We Do This Church Thing on Sundays?

So I've been looking over the past couple of posts that I've made to my blog and I'm observing that I've had a string of really heavy topics for the past few weeks. And while I think it's important to do that, I also think it's important every so often to look for more lighthearted fare. So let's talk about the Christian day of worship!


As a matter of fact, I have been having conversations lately that involve the question "why do so many Christians find it necessary to worship on Sunday morning?" These conversations have not been particularly weighty, but I've enjoyed them and they've been on my mind, thus I'm writing about the topic. Let's begin.


My understanding of the Christian tradition of worshipping on Sunday morning has always been rooted in the commemoration of Easter morning. In other words, we worship on Sunday morning because Christ rose on a Sunday. He died on Friday at 3 pm (or so the story is told) and we commemorate that as Good Friday, and then he rose three days later, as he had foretold, which would put the rising on Sunday. Ergo we worship Christ on Sunday morning because we are inspired by the mystery of his death and resurrection. But there's one problem: when the women came to the tomb on Easter morning, they found it already empty, which implies that Christ rose at some time during the night. So if we're going to commemorate the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, shouldn't we have Sunday worship at sunrise?

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Tom. We worship Christ but we don't need to go off the deep end and worship him at sunrise. That would be unreasonable!" Fine. I'll go with it. And I'll reinforce it. I recently listened to an interview with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and she said that the current tradition of worshipping at 9 or 10 am on Sundays is a result of diary farmers. Seriously. The farmers already needed to get up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows, then wash, change, and get into town for church. Then they would still have time to visit with their friends and make their way home before the second milking. And of course, the rest of us non-dairy farmers didn't mind not having to get up at oh-dark-thirty for church, so we just kinda kept the tradition...

Let's try this Sunday thing from another angle: It is a matter of record that Constantine, the legendary Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, decreed that no one was to work on Sundays. Well, what he meant was that all shops and offices should be closed. In town. Because the farmers might need to sow or harvest on that day. So really, no one should work, unless they had to.

But it was the Christian Sabbath Day! It was the Christian take on the Jewish holy day (because, you know, that was one of those ten commandments that God gave us). And, you know, it was in the Didache (14:1, for the record, which you will need to scroll down to see if you follow the link I've provided), which was provided to us by the Early Church architects. So therefor, we need to worship on Sundays! Unless we take the Jewish idea of the Sabbath starting at sundown on Friday and extending until sundown on Saturday. If we define it like that, we Christians can worship on Saturday and sleep in on Sunday...

I think this Sunday morning thing is falling apart. I think that the real reason we worship on Sunday morning at 9 or 10 am is because... Tradition.

Yes, I know there is irony in using a .gif from Fiddler on the Roof
while writing about the Christian day of worship... I love the taste of iron...

Truth be told, I don't think I really want to worship solely on Sunday morning. I'm an early bird, yes, but not necessarily so that I can go to church. I like to be able to get up on the weekends and sip my coffee, staring out the window. And then maybe I'll go for a walk with my wife, if she's up, or I'll go for a run by myself. I don't really enjoy being rushed around, trying to get out the door as quick as possible so that I can go to church and be worshipful. Truth be told, there have been weeks where I feel particularly rebellious and I skipped church on Sunday morning so that I could go for a run in the morning. Not to mention the weeks when I stay out later than usual and I just needed to sleep the next morning.

So am I damnable because I have not gone to church on a given Sunday morning? No, I think not. In fact (I'm going to get a little more serious here), I don't think we, as the Church, ought to be forcing people to conform to the commemoration of Christ's resurrection if we, ourselves cannot keep to an explanation which does not require a degree in Church History to understand.

Okay, so since I just got serious, I'm going to take that point further. I have often heard complaints of "The young people! Where are all the young people at church!" The response to that is, "They're sleeping. And just because you cannot see them all in one place on a Sunday morning, does not mean that there are no young people in the Church." I'll go so far as to consider this a matter of diaconal ministry, in a certain sense.

If deacons are bridge builders who bring the needs of the world to the Church and also bring the Church into the world, I think it is not too far off of our prescription to point out to the Church assembled on Sunday morning that another part of the Church is still in bed because it's too damn early for them to be worshipful. And why should that sleepy part of the Church be kept from worship? I've already demonstrated that Christian history has a very robust tradition of loosely defining what it means to worship on the Lord's day. So what's wrong with having a time for worship on Sunday evening at 6? Or maybe Saturday at 5, before everyone goes out for their socializing? Speaking as an Episcopalian, I don't think we're running any risk by gathering to worship at those times. It's not like our parish buildings are becoming over-used.

So I'll conclude this and be done; let me return to my original question: Why do we do this Church thing on Sundays? Frankly, I don't know. There is a deceptively simple answer that we're commemorating Easter Sunday every week. But we've seen how that explanation gets complicated very quickly when it's questioned. So I think we would do well to lean into the tension of our tradition more and find the time to worship so that the worship of each person in the Church is as robust as it can be.