“Sunday as a Mark of Christian Unity”
by Rev. Dr. Demetrios E. Tonias – Dean, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral of New England
The Christian Church, from its very beginning, has struggled with the concept of unity. Indeed, within the Pauline corpus we see the many ways in which the Apostle to the Gentiles struggled to keep together his young and fragile network of communities. As the church grew, there arose a variety of challenges, large and small, to threaten its unity. The Orthodox Christian Divine Liturgy bears witness to these challenges in the petitions and prayers, which are offered in the Eucharistic rite. We pray for “the unity of all,” “the unity of the faith,” for Christ to “reunite those separated” and to “unite us all to one another who become partakers of the one Bread and the Cup in the communion of the one Holy Spirit.” We recite the Nicene Creed with its portentous closing phrases stating belief in “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” its sacred claim to “confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins”, and its exultation of Sunday as the Lord’s Day and the gift of resurrection with the statement “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the ages to come.”
The Divine Liturgy is, most certainly, a fitting place to offer such prayers and confessions of faith, for the preeminent celebration of the Liturgy takes place on Sunday. From the moment the myrrh bearers found Christ’s empty tomb, Sunday was known as ἡ Κυριακή ἡμέρα—the Lord’s Day. By definition, each and every Sunday is a call to Christian unity since it is on this day that we are called to communion with the Lord, by the Lord. In spite of all of the challenges that have tugged at the threads of Christian unity, the Lord’s Day remains the one, unassailable marker of Christian unity since it is on this day that all of us, despite our many differences, gather together as believers in Christ.
There were always differences about days and dates in the Christian world. There were divisions surrounding the dating of Pascha from the earliest years of Christianity. The Puritans rejected the commemoration of the birth of Christ on December 25 as unscriptural. The Lord’s Day, however, as a time of communal, Christian gathering has never been in question. The commemoration of the Lord’s Day is an historical reality that bears witness to the centrality of the Resurrection and all that this event meant and signifies for the cosmos. Therefore, what better marker of Christian unity can we have? Indeed, what stronger case can one make for the significance of Sunday as a hallmark of Christian unity than the understanding that Christians throughout the centuries have conceived of this day as a day of new creation, an eighth day set apart from all others.
For the Orthodox Christian mind, this historical relationship is critical to our understanding of Christian unity. For the Orthodox Christian, unity implies a transcendent ecumenicity—an ecumenicity that exists throughout time and space. It is a communion of all believers, at all times. Put simply, nothing in the calendar unites us like Sunday. It is a day that changed the world on the very first Sunday and, I would argue, every Sunday after the first. The world was transfigured through a myriad of Sunday’s when Christians gathered in communion and heard the Gospel message. It was on Sunday when Christians learned to love their enemies and care for those in need. It was on Sunday when Christians first met to share a meal of love they called by the Greek word ἀγάπη. It was, is, and shall always be on Sunday when the best hope for humanity shines forth from churches large and small and the “Eucharist after the Eucharist” travels forth from the four walls of the church and into the home and homeless shelter, the playground and the hospital, the wedding feast and the wake.
It is human nature to think parochially—in terms of our own family, our own exclusive church, our own unique religious entity. In this historical light, however, Sunday takes on a new meaning. Sunday worship is something more than simply what our parents and grandparents did. Sunday worship is even more than what our local faith community has done. Sunday worship is something that all Christians, at all times have celebrated. When we gather on Sunday the unity we achieve takes us back in time, across the ages to the earliest believer; it also moves us forward in time to embrace generations not yet born. In this way, the spiritual unity we have thus achieved possesses an eschatological character. The unity to which we bear witness and which we embody is a manifestation of the kingdom to which we all aspire.
In order to fully appreciate Sunday as a mark of Christian unity we must expand our definition of unity. We must all strive for a Christian community—one throughout the ages—for such a transcendent unity yields many fruits. If we are in union with the earliest Christians then we will share in their zeal. If we are in unity with the martyrs then we partake of their devotion. If we are in unity with those compassionate Christians then we feel and can bestow their healing touch. When we assemble in faith on Sundays, we gather not simply with other parishioners in a local place of worship, but with Christians throughout every land and all the ages—and there is no greater evidence of unity than this. In our century, as with its predecessors, challenges large and small threaten Sunday. However, when we stand in faith, as members of a Church beyond all churches, we reclaim Sunday for the God who gave it to us.