In Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Superbowl, Craig Harline traces Christian traditions and beliefs about Sunday. After a brief introduction to the origins of the seven-day week, he introduces the "Lord's Day." Early Christian Sunday practices were influenced by the Jewish Sabbath, and probably by the pagan Sun Day as well, writes Harline. But there is a range of opinion on exactly why they chose the first day of the week for communal worship. As Christianity gained prominence throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, celebrating Sunday as a special day became "nearly universal."
"Yet it wasn't merely the increased number of Christians that gave the Lord's Day its new stature between 300 and 800," writes Harline. " Just as important was the continued shaping of the day. This included adding 'rest' to the old tradition of 'worship' on the Lord's Day, continuing to formalize the day's worship, and the common use now by Christians of the very term 'Sun Day' [instead of 'the Lord's Day']."
Over time, the Sunday we know of formal worship services and (for most) a day off work, appeared on the horizon.
The trend toward a more visible Christianity, evident in the spread of literal rest on the Lord's Day, was also evident in changes in worship. In the first place, thanks to Christianity's official status after 392 and more free time than ever on the Lord's Day, worship became more public. Services began at midmorning now, rather than at inconvenient hours, and took place in clearly defined churches rather than in semi-secretive houses.
In the second place, worship on the Lord's Day became more formal. The elements and order of services were elaborated even further. Numerous brief statements of belief, or "creeds," were added to services to promote orthodoxy. For the same reason more and more collections of the sayings of safe, recognized authorities were assembled as well, and read aloud during services. Formalizing worship also included dividing congregations by gender, age, and marital status. Another sure sign of formalized worship was the increase in complaints from clergymen about casualness during services among the flock. John Chrysostom, lamenting—even then—that churches were filled on Easter and Christmas but empty on the Lord's Day, urged his audience to compel friends and enemies and wives and children alike to come to services weekly, even forcibly drag them along, as part of their Christian obligation to love their neighbor. And it wasn't enough that people merely show up to church: he complained about young men who giggled or laughed aloud during prayer or sermons, declaring it a wonder that thunderbolts were not cast down upon them. If such indifference was suffered by Chrysostom, whose name means "the golden mouth," then one may safely assume that other preachers suffered it as well.
One way to counter irreverence at Lord's Day services was to grab people's attention with yet another sign and method of formalization: increasingly dramatic liturgy, in the form of special music, vestments, processions, objects, and actions, all set in ever more impressive churches. Since the time of Paul, many Christians had argued that holiness was interior and that God could not be circumscribed in a particular building or place or object: the true dwelling place of God was the heart of the baptized Christian. But now more and more Christians began to see God in specific earthly places, especially churches, and even in the holy objects used within them. Pagans and Jews had likewise established holy places, but Christians gave their own explanation: if God had become incarnate in the physical world in the form of Jesus, and God had created the physical world, then surely other visible signs of him could be found on earth.
The single most important physical channeling of God's presence by this time occurred within the church, during the Eucharist, still the highlight of Lord's Day services. When the Eucharist shifted from a genuine evening meal to a morning meal of merely bread and wine, then that bread and wine took on even greater importance, as did the vessels used to hold them. More and more Christians believed that these earthly elements, once consecrated during the Eucharist, were transformed literally into Christ's flesh and blood. In addition, the old fellowship-meal table became an altar, and the vessels used for the Eucharist were no longer used for everyday meals.
The new setting of the Eucharist—the church building itself—became more visibly important than ever by the sixth century. Anyone visiting a Christian service on the Lord's Day then would have noticed the magnificent candelabra, censers, and colored marbles, all meant to increase the sense of holiness in the place. Perhaps most striking of all would have been the abundant images in mosaic, images once considered too earthbound or pagan for Christians. These portrayed not only recognizably Christian figures but also pagan deities and such elements of this world as birds, beasts, trees, baskets, fruits, vases, and even seasons. Summer might appear in a church mosaic as a bare-breasted woman wearing earrings and wielding a sickle the ocean as a half-nude man; the church building might take a blatantly Roman form, most notably a basilica. All this did not mean acceptance of paganism, but reflected Christianity's new confidence: fear of paganism's allure was past, because paganism had been subjected. Things of this world were now holy, creations of the Christian God.
Most telling here is that even the Sun, greatest symbol of Roman paganism, no longer had exclusively pagan meaning. Some early Christians had already used, with mixed results, the Sun's imagery to speak of Christ. But such imagery became more acceptable during the fourth century, when far more Christians began calling the first day "Sunday" rather than exclusively the Lord's Day—despite even the condemnations of an Augustine or a Chrysostom. Saint Jerome himself defended the practice, saying, why shouldn't we call it Sunday, since Christ is the Sun of justice and has filled the world with his light? Jerome even claimed that Sunday took its name from Christ the Sun rather than from the physical Sun. This was a classic example of reading present desires into the past, but Jerome demonstrated perfectly the ability to take something previously seen as Roman and make it Christian.
Indeed if the "Lord's Day" dominated Latin ecclesiastical usage by the fourth and fifth centuries, "Sunday" was at the same time more and more common in popular Christian usage. And when Christianity moved into northern Europe, "Sunday" was so common among Christians that the new northern converts simply used that name exclusively. Just as pagan forms had been conquered and appropriated, now the greatest pagan day was absorbed as well. Emerging vernacular languages around the Mediterranean, where the early church was born and raised, certainly retained "Lord's Day" in common usage, but a good Christian in either north or south could now find as much Christian imagery in "Sunday" as they pleased, and thus uttered the word without a second thought. Only the later vernacular languages of eastern Christianity, and Portuguese in the west, would reject all planetary names for the days of the week as offensively pagan.
In sum, by 600 one may speak of a Christian Sunday in the old Roman provinces touching the Mediterranean. By 800 this had expanded into the large portions of northern Europe already Christianized. Like the Jewish Sabbath, Sunday had become the most important day of the week, indeed gave the week most of its meaning. Once thoroughly pagan, Sunday now had a decidedly Christian connotation. It would remain this way for so long that countless generations in the Western world would consider the day's very existence, name, and status as obvious, unquestioned facts of life, as if things had always been this way.
Excerpted from Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Superbowl by Craig Harline. By permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.