Contact Us

Living the Sunday nowadays

30 November, 1999

This month the Pope asks us ‘that Sunday be lived as the day on which Christians gather to celebrate the Risen Lord in the table of the Eucharist’. Fr Michael Paul Gallagher SJ explains.

In spite of various campaigns to have it removed, Irish television (and radio) has kept the custom of the Angelus. Surveys have shown that people from other religious traditions also appreciate this symbol of pausing for prayer.

I am struck by the contrast between a famous French painting of ‘The Angelus’ (which the reader can see here) and the way in which this moment is presented on television. The artist Millet shows us a peasant couple at evening time, with bowed heads, stopping their work in the potato fields, as the bell rings out from the village church in the background. The RTÉ films, which change from time to time, usually show us a series of people in very different situations, pausing briefly before continuing their activities. The scenes are sensitively filmed and evoke a world poles apart from that of Millet. Much has changed, as we all know.

In that French village time was experienced, let us say, as both vertical and horizontal. The functional world of work and movement did not dominate people’s sense of life. People had a more spontaneous sense of God’s presence, even in the midst of the burdens of each day – the ‘vertical’ dimension. One of the many changes that came with ‘modern’ life has been a new rhythm which keeps people on the move horizontally, and which can make the vertical horizon seem unreal. ‘I haven’t enough time’ becomes the chorus of our days. We often live with self-imposed pressures that leave little space for real pausing or praying. Against this background, this month’s intention focuses on renewing our sense of Sunday as our weekly Easter, with the emphasis on how this day can best ‘be lived’. In 1998, Pope John Paul II devoted a long letter to this topic, and some of what I offer here is inspired by his text, entitled Dies Domini or ‘The Lord’s Day’.

Two great biblical moments can help us to enter into this theme, both of them connected with joy: the joy God felt before the goodness of His creation, so much so that He rested on the seventh day to enjoy it. The Pope spoke of this as God’s ‘gaze of joyful delight’. The second moment comes at the climax of the gospels, in the joy that filled the disciples of Jesus when they recognised him as risen from the dead. That ‘Sabbath’ initiated by God Himself in the book of Genesis was not just inactivity, but resting in a spirit of soaring gratitude before the wonder of life. Similarly, those Easter encounters wrought a revolution in the vision of the mourning friends of Jesus. As Father Anthony Kelly, an Australian Redemptorist, has recently written: they ‘met with the impact of a beauty that overwhelmed them’.

Obviously our Sunday Mass, or our living of the Sabbath day, can seldom reach such intensity, but we are invited to make it special, in order to savour something of the joy of our faith once a week. In today’s world we are also challenged to see through some of the superficiality surrounding the idea of the ‘weekend’ and to see that as Christians we are called to be happily different from the surrounding culture in this respect. The Sabbath we celebrate is something more than free time in the ordinary sense. At the heart of our Sunday is our rediscovery of the joy of the Risen Lord and what that can mean for us.

To do that genuinely may involve resisting the consumerist priorities of the ‘secular’ weekend. Sunday shopping may be necessary for many people today, but it would be good to ask ourselves occasionally if it is all that necessary. Or, more positively, what would be a better use of our Sunday, something more in tune with our faith? There is a good custom in many families of visiting relatives on Sunday, and in particular, of visiting those sick or in trouble. That would seem more in harmony with the Christian vision than wandering around shopping malls, or watching hours of television.

Of course at the centre of our Sunday is the Eucharist. Everyone knows that attendance at Sunday Mass has declined in recent years, and much could be said about that topic. Younger people, and the not so young, often complain that Mass is ‘boring’. ‘it does nothing for me’. Sometimes, let us admit it, the clergy can be at fault, when the liturgy is poorly prepared or the preaching is routine and does not try to make God’s Word come alive. But I would want to challenge those who find Mass boring to examine their own preparation and the quality of the rest of their week. I am struck by what the Second Vatican Council said in this respect: that people need ‘faith and conversion’ before they ‘can come to the liturgy’, which is the ‘summit’ towards which all Christian life is directed (Document on Liturgy, nos. 9-10). So if the Mass is meant to be the crown of Christian life, that life needs a real body on which to put the crown! It is hardly surprising that people are bored if they come scattered and unfocussed. We can’t expect Mass to be meaningful if we don’t do our best to be present in spirit and to bring something of the generosity of our week to the altar. Inevitably the quality we bring to Mass will influence the quality of the grace we receive from the celebration.

If there is a certain crisis about how we live our Christian Sunday, perhaps we need to look at the larger context of our lives. Without some discernment of the culture around us and without some honest reflection on our own dispositions, we may be asking the impossible. Sunday Mass needs a certain receptiveness in us in order to be fruitful and have an impact on our lives. That letter of Pope John Paul II spoke of Mass as Mission. In fact the word Mass in English comes from the Latin for being sent. At the end of the Latin Mass we used say ite missa est which is literally ‘Go, the Mass is over’ but also implied ‘you are sent forth’. What Saint Augustine called our weekly sacrament of Easter is meant to transform us, to send us out in order to love with and like the Lord. These ideals are high, but without them we are in danger of falling short of the full richness of Sunday. Yes, it is a time to rest, but in order to remember the Resurrection of the Lord and to recognise that He wants to continue to ‘easter’ in us, as the poet Hopkins once said.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (October 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


Tags: ,