Sacred Times


1. SUNDAY AND SUNDAY SERVICES.-- There are clear indications that the first day of the week was from the outset a special day to the Christians (Acts xx. 7; 1 Cor. xvi. 2). Already in the apostolic age, it acquired the name of the "Lord's Day" (Rev. i. 10). Writers following close upon the apostolic age state plainly that it was a day specially observed by the Church. The letter of Pliny to Trajan certifies us that the Christians were accustomed to meet for worship on a "stated day," and other sources of information leave no doubt that his reference was to the first day of the week. Ignatius of Antioch, who also wrote during the reign of Trajan, speaks of those who had come into possession of the new Christian hope, as "no longer observing the sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day." [Epist. ad magnes., ix.] The Epistle of Barnabas says: "We keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus arose from the dead." [Chap. xv.] The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles assigns Christian worship to the "Lord's Day." [xiv. 1.] "On the day called Sunday," says Justin Martyr, "all who live in the cities or in the country gather together to one place." [1 Apol., lxvii.] All time was counted sacred by the early Christians. "To the perfect Christian," said Origen,"all his days are the Lord's, and he is always keeping the Lord's day;" [Cont. Celsum, viii. 22. Compare Hom. in Gen. x. 3.] but evidently Sunday was pre-eminently the sacred day of the early Church.

In what sense was Sunday a sacred day? Was it regarded as the Jewish sabbath transferred from the last to the first day of the week, a day coming under the positive prescription of the Fourth Commandment? By no means. All the writings of the first three centuries are destitute of ally intimation of such a belief. The unmixed impression which comes from the perusal of this whole body of literature is, that the Christian sacred day was viewed as independent of the Jewish, having indeed a certain kinship with it as respects use and design, but in its origin and sanctions just as distinct from it as Christian baptism was from Jewish circumcision. Not one of the Fathers of this period so much as hints that he finds in Sunday a commemoration of God's rest from the work of creation. Not one of them betrays the least consciousness that the Fourth Commandment was to be looked upon as applying to Sunday. That which Sunday was regarded as celebrating, was no event connected with the physical creation (except the creation of light, as referred to by Justin Martyr), no event of Jewish history, but the crowning event of the ministry of redemption, the resurrection of Christ. It was the festival of the resurrection, the day of holy rejoicing, on which fasting or even kneeling in prayer way counted inappropriate. So far were the early Fathers from seeing in Sunday the old Jewish sabbath with all its sanctions, only carried over from the last to the first day of the week, that we find several of them specifying the abolition of the latter. Justin Martyr and Tertullian state expressly, that, like circumcision, the sabbath is under Christianity abolished. [Dial cum Tryph., xviii., xix.; Adv. Judæos, iv.; Adv. Marc., v. 4.] What could be more distinct than these words from the latter of these writers? "The precept [to keep the Sabbath] was not eternal nor spiritual, but temporal, which would one day cease....It was not with a view to its observance in perpetuity, that God formerly gave them such a law." Irenæus also indicates that he did not consider the sabbath law of the old dispensation as having any statutory force under the new dispensation, speaking of it as being like circumcision, a type or sign of something beyond itself, a sign, namely, "that we should continue day by day in God's service." [Cont. Hær., iv. 16.] The broad distinction apprehended between the Jewish and the Christian day is indicated also by the tone of the first statement which we find of an obligation to abstain from secular work on Sunday. This is in a writing of Tertullian, not earlier than the end of the second century, and reads as follows: "Only on the day of the Lord's resurrection ought we to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude, deferring even our business, lest we give any place to the devil." [De Orat., xxiii.] Tertullian here refers the obligation to abstain from business on Sunday, not to any Old-Testament command, not even to apostolic tradition, but to the need of having the outward conditions favorable to that state of mind which is appropriate to the day, Sunday, in virtue of the event which it celebrates, ought to be to Christians a day of joy, peace, and tranquillity of soul; to avoid needless distraction, worldly business should be suspended: such is the sum-total of his argument. A later passage, in the Apostolic Constitutions, [viii. 33.] brings forward the same grounds for making Sunday a day of rest. How far the early Church agreed with Tertullian in recognizing an obligation to abstain from labor on the Lord's Day, is difficult to determine. No doubt, from the beginning of Christianity, the requirements of public worship made it in part a day of abstinence from secular toil. But, on the other hand, there is no indication of any positive prohibition of such toil within the first two centuries. This, taken in connection with the fact that the Sunday laws of Constantine included no prohibition of agricultural employment, would favor the conclusion that it was only gradually that the Church came to insist upon refraining from worldly business on Sunday. The natural demands of a specially sacred day, more than any thing else, brought about the result. Secular work interfered with the wish to distinguish and to hallow the first day of the week above all other days: hence, naturally, a growing demand that it should be suspended on this day. As regards the Jewish sabbath, many Jewish Christians no doubt continued for a time to observe it, but its observance was never imposed upon Gentile Christians.

The stand-point of the early Church upon this subject will probably be regarded by many as something to be deplored. It is certainly quite in contrast with a traditional view which still prevails through a considerable range. One accustomed to regard the Fourth Commandment as a statute perpetually in force can hardly fail to think that the early Fathers greatly erred in discarding this as a sanction of the Christian sacred day. No doubt, they might have credited it with a somewhat larger significance than they did. It was at least a grand historical precedent, providentially designed to supply the general model of the Christian week. It is a standing and most impressive testimony to the need of a sacred day in the training of Israel, and, by implication, in the training of mankind. But, on the other hand, it remains to be proved that the early writers were decidedly in the wrong in assigning a relative independence to the Christian day, and in founding it upon the great fact of the resurrection, rather than upon a prescription in the Mosaic legislation. Indeed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, there is a fair presumption that in this they were only following the tenor of apostolic teaching. The apostles, as men trained in Judaism, and habitually associating the seventh day with the Creator's rest, could naturally feel no incentive to connect its law with a day commemorating a totally different event, namely, the resurrection of Christ. We consider it every way probable, therefore, that the Fourth Commandment, while influential in supplying the model of the Christian week, was never quoted by the apostles as a positive sanction or prescription for the first day of the week. This seems to leave us without a definite scriptural command for the observance of Sunday. True, but an ample equivalent is given. The historical precedent supplied by the Fourth Commandment, the essential fitness of commemorating the great event of the new dispensation, the custom of making the first day of the meek a special day for worship while the Church was still under the supervision of the apostles, the dictate of reason that man as a physical and moral being needs a day of rest and devotion, the testimony of centuries to the blessed results of having a recurring sacred day,-- all this will constitute for the intelligent Christian as valid a "thus saith the Lord," as any formal statute which could be issued from a flaming Sinai.

Before the close of the apostolic age, the custom seems to have become well established to hold a two-fold service on the first day of the week, a morning and an evening service. The letter of Pliny to Trajan plainly indicates the existence of this custom in the early part of the second century. But soon after that date, the evening service, as being especially obnoxious to Roman suspicion, was omitted, The love-feast which had constituted an important part of that service was left out altogether from the Sunday worship. The description of Justin Martyr, already referred to, will serve to bring before us the main features of the public worship as it existed after these changes had been effected. "On the day called Sunday," he writes, "all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray; and as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen. And there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given; and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the sojourner among us, and, in a word, takes care of all who are in need." [1 Apol., lxvii.] From this account, it appears that the celebration of the Eucharist, and the taking of a collection for the poor, were parts of the regular Sunday service. Justin says nothing about the dismissal of the general congregation before the Eucharist was celebrated; but that became the custom at the close of the second century, and none except those in full communion with the Church were permitted to be witnesses of the sacred rite. The singing of hymns is not mentioned by Justin as a part of the public worship, but we know from the New Testament and other sources that this mode of devotion was not neglected by the early Christians. The character of the primitive Christian hymns will be considered in another connection.

2. YEARLY FESTIVALS.--Three yearly festivals obtained currency before the close of this period; namely, Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany. The first of these was made a subject of special prominence by the controversies which sprung up as to the time of its celebration. In Rome and the churches generally of the West, one opinion prevailed; in Asia Minor, another. The point of the disagreement was this. The Asiatic Christians thought that Easter ought to be celebrated on the same day on which the paschal lamb was slain; that is, on the 14th of Nisan, let this come on whatever day of the week it might. Accordingly on the 14th of Nisan they closed the Lenten fast with the celebration of the Eucharist as the Christian's paschal feast. In the West, on the other hand, it was thought that the Jewish calendar ought to be discarded, that Easter should always occur upon a Sunday, the day commemorative of Christ's resurrection; and the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox was fixed upon as the appropriate day.

The demands of the Roman bishops upon the subject were stoutly resisted by the churches of Asia Minor. The Roman practice (which was also the Alexandrian) continued, nevertheless, to gain ground, so that the Council of Nicæa in 325 felt authorized to give it the authority of law.

[An interest in this question has been revived in recent times by attempts to show a disagreement between the custom of the churches of Asia Minor and John's Gospel, and so to discredit the genuineness of this Gospel. It is assumed that the author of the Fourth Gospel locates the Last Supper on the 13th of Nisan, that the churches of Asia Minor in their commemoration of the 14th of Nisan bad reference to the Last Supper, and that consequently they had a different view of the time of that supper from that which is assigned to it by the Fourth Gospel. Now, in answer to this representation, it is to be noticed that it has very slight bearing upon the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel, even when both premises are granted. Suppose, as is assumed, that the author of the Fourth Gospel locates the Last Supper on the 13th of Nisan; suppose also that tile portion of the Asiatic Church which continued to pay respect to the Jewish calendar wished to commemorate the Last Supper: what is the conclusion? Simply this, that the initiation of their custom, or at least one notion connected with it, was not founded upon a close scrutiny of John's Gospel. And this may very well have been the case. There is no reason to suppose that John, if he had any thing to do with instituting the Easter celebration, deemed the precise time of its occurrence a matter of great importance. Nothing was more natural, so long as account was taken of the Jewish calendar, than to make the Christian feast to occur on the same day as the Jewish, especially as Christ was regarded as the Lamb of God, typified by the Passover lamb. The ground primarily determining the custom of celebrating the 14th of Nisan is one thing. Considerations urged in favor of the custom or notions connected with it, a generation or two after it became established, are quite another thing. John, in his administration of the Church, may have countenanced the custom, and so given an occasion to appeal to his authority, without being in any wise responsible for inferences that were drawn. Surely there is nothing here of a very formidable nature to contend with. The Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel is not so ill-supported as to be endangered by a bugbear of this description. If either premise is denied (and there are many scholars who challenge the one or the other), the adverse criticism is of course correspondingly weakened.]

The festival of Pentecost followed Easter, extending through fifty days, marked at first by daily communion, the standing posture in prayer, and absence of fasting, Gradually the attention was centred upon the fortieth day as the day of Ascension, and the fiftieth as Pentecost proper, the other days being simply non-fast days.

The feast of Epiphany received little attention till the third century, if indeed it can be said to have been adopted at all by the Church before that century, It was a feast in honor of Christ's appearance in the world, especially of His appearance as the Messiah at His baptism, and was commonly celebrated on the 6th of January.

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