Sundays Through History
The Peculiar Life of Sundays
By Stephen Miller
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Pages: 320 pages
Review Author: Arthur C. Sippo
Taking its cue from the story of creation in Genesis, the Jewish religious tradition developed a recurring weekly cycle of seven solar days as the basis for its calendar. The days were collected into groupings that coincided with the cycles of the moon (from which the English word “month” was derived). They were further organized into a yearly cycle of approximately three hundred sixty days, which roughly coincided with the cycles of the fixed stars and the four seasons. This pattern became the basis for our modern calendar after proper adjustments were made, given that none of these cycles exactly corresponded to the others.
Eventually, the simplicity and practicality of the Jewish seven-day week, including a day of rest, prevailed in many places in the old world well before the time of Christ. With the rise of Christianity and its eventual acceptance as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the day of rest in the week was changed from the seventh day (Saturday) to the first day (Sunday). This pattern has now become standard all over the world in virtually every culture. It is the standard of both social and business activities in non-Christian nations and has even taken on religious significance in these places as well. The meaning and importance of Sunday as the first day of the week, the day of Christ’s resurrection, the Christian “Sabbath,” and the universal day of rest, reflect the social, political, cultural, and religious developments in world history. This is the theme of Stephen Miller’s book The Peculiar Life of Sundays.
Miller, a freelance writer who has published essays on topics including history, philosophy, and the art of conversation, is a contributing editor of Wilson Quarterly and has received recognition for his studies of leading writers of the eighteenth century. He has an obvious love of reading and an abiding respect for historical studies.
His book is composed of nine essays, each dedicated to a particular theme. The first essay is an overview of the ways in which Sundays have been perceived throughout history. The second essay deals with the Patristic age and evinces knowledge of the modern historical consensus on this period. Miller has obviously done his homework and not fallen back on the clichés from earlier scholarship that still tend to plague many popular expositions of this kind. He demonstrates that the Sunday celebration continued to compete with pagan religious and cultural celebrations for the attention of Christians in ancient times. In fact, pagans, Jews, and Christians seem to have shared in one another’s celebrations far more freely than the more sober Church Fathers had liked. There is even evidence of syncretism, as when the story of Jesus and the myth of Mithras were blurred together in the minds of simple Christian laymen who continued to celebrate pagan sun festivals as religious feasts.
The next seven essays deal with the history of the idea of Sunday in the English-speaking world, starting with the Elizabethans and proceeding through the next five centuries to the present. They cover the reinterpretation of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath among the scions of the Protestant revolt and their descendants, and examine the extreme Sabbatarianism among Scottish Presbyterians and the transcendentalist views of those who abandoned their Christian religious heritage for naturalistic or even pagan worldviews.
One recurring feature in the last section of the book is the tension between treating Sunday as a holiday rather than a holy day. The English Puritans enforced a strict ban on most activities on Sunday, other than communal worship, prayer, and Bible-reading. Similar views were promulgated into the twentieth century by groups such as the Methodists. At the Jersey Shore when I was a child, there were certain towns that were predominantly Methodist. You were not even allowed to drive your car on the streets of those towns on Sundays. New England had even more stringent “Blue Laws” that were only relaxed relatively recently.
This strict religious observance was contemptuously contrasted by rigorous British and American Protestants to the “Continental Sunday” in places like Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy. In those lands, major trade business was forbidden and most people went to Church in the morning but afterwards engaged in pleasurable activities such as sports, sightseeing, the theater, and fine dining. Sunday was seen not only as a holy day but a holiday for the enjoyment of leisure and other pursuits not possible on working days. This was in fact the norm among Catholics and often caused friction between them and their strait-laced Protestant neighbors in Britain and the U.S.
In the survey of the various writers that Miller makes in his book, it is clear that strict Sabbatarianism had a strongly negative influence on many intellectuals and helped to drive them away from Christianity. The day of rest given by God to man had instead become a trial of ennui in which the vigor of life was smothered on one day each week, ostensibly to honor God.
At the other extreme were the transcendentalists and neo-pagans who saw Sunday as a time to contemplate the divine in nature or in the serenity of music, food, or good companionship. These Sunday revelers emphasized the transcendence and majesty of creation as a reflection of the divine. They did not seek moral purity or refinement but the pure aesthetic awe of the world around them and a contemplation of the source of it all. Even those who abandoned Christianity could not fully abandon the idea of Sunday as a day of rest and enjoyment.
In reading this section of the book, the words of Jesus come to mind: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). It seems that excessive Sabbatarianism was so spiritually minded that it served no earthly good. It confused the sterility of passive religious quietism for the partaking of the divine nature that is the real goal of the Gospel. Jesus was no strict Sabbatarian; He encouraged doing good on the Sabbath, such as healing and acting to feed oneself. This was one of the things that caused such consternation among the scribes and Pharisees, and what helped turn them against Him.
In the creation week in Genesis, God labored six days to create the world, then He declared it “very good” and rested, not to contemplate Himself but rather to enjoy the world He had made. Inactivity was not the point of the Sabbath; leisurely enjoyment was. The Sabbath rest is a luxury afforded to laborers as a reward for what they have accomplished during the work week. But it is also a time to reflect on what God has accomplished in His creation and shared with us. It is also natural that we celebrate on that same day what He has done for us in the redemption. The Christian Sabbath is when Jesus rose from the dead; it is the first day of the New Creation in Christ.
We should not make too great a distinction between Sunday as a holiday and a holy day. It is not merely both but integrally so. The linking of our worship of God to the natural goods of His creation is something distinctly Catholic. Unlike the Protestant reformers, Catholics never dismissed the world as a series of distractions from God in a pseudo-Manichean way. As St. Paul tells us, “Ever since the creation of the world, his [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).
Properly speaking, there is no great dichotomy between the secular good and the sacred good, between the holy day and the holiday. If God is the Creator of all things, we cannot celebrate the beauty of the world without celebrating He who made it. Likewise, we cannot worship God without venerating what He has made. The failure to grasp this simple principle desacralizes nature and creates the illusion that the beauty of creation distracts one from God instead of manifesting Him. Once someone has been seduced by this puritanical error, the enjoyment of embodied life becomes morally problematic, and the Protestant error of total depravity makes people feel guilty for merely existing and wanting to enjoy their lives.
Miller shows us the range of different approaches of literary minds to Sundays, from the beginning of Christianity to the present day, and his book clearly shows that Sundays have taken on a peculiar life of their own. Even without God or Christ, men have been drawn to the day of rest since pagan antiquity. In a world in which life is often tedious and economically precarious, setting aside one day of rest out of seven resonates with our very human nature. The specialness of Sunday is a presupposition in modern secular culture for which the secular man has no explanation. Only those in the Judeo-Christian tradition are privy to the secret of the Sabbath that comes from the lost time of Eden.
As Miller says, “Sunday is a holy day for eighty percent of Americans but it is a holiday for all Americans….” Maybe this fact can and should be used in apologetics to bring more people back to Christ and His Church.
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