Why do people worship together as a community? Granted, many people have a personal life of devotion, but what is it about communal worship that can help steer our days through life’s uncertainties, traumas, and storms?
Whether shared in person or through live streaming, Sunday worship has given me a framework for time lived during the pandemic. It also helps me now, as many people try to adjust to viruses as an endemic part of life.
In the book Tossed In Time,1 I wrote about Sunday worship as signifying the fullness of past, present, and future compressed into the present moment coming before God. Over the centuries, followers of Jesus have called weekly worship “The Lord’s Day,” “The First Day,” and “The Eighth Day,” gathering all human experience into one.
• The Lord’s Day, when we don’t learn about Jesus but are present with him in renewed encounter with the Living God.
• The First Day of the week, when we honor God’s having created everything that lives, God’s Word that continues to bring it all into being, and the Day of Christ’s Resurrection from death.
• The Eighth Day, as the first day of the new creation, God’s gift of eternal life.
In this multilayered way, worship makes us contemporaries with Christ, who is always alive and present with us.
Sunday worship began before 100 A.D.2 and is one of the most ancient rites of Christianity. Early Christian writer and philosopher, Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), was the first Christian to call The Lord’s Day “Sunday,” exploiting that term used throughout the Roman Empire for their popular pagan worship of the sun. As theologian and historian Jerome3 (died 420 A.D.) explained,
The day of the Lord, the day of the Resurrection, the day of the Christians is our day. And if it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name. For on this day arose the light, on this day shone forth the sun of justice.
In the Bible, Jesus calls himself “the Light of the World” (John 8:12). Building on this image, later generations of Christians identified him as “the Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:1f.), as “the rising sun,” and as “the Sun of the Resurrection.” Early theologian and philosopher Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) described Jesus as “the Sun of the Resurrection, he who was born before the dawn, whose beams give light.”4
While the Roman name of “Sunday” endured over the centuries, Christian weekly worship has continued its distinctive purposes to:
• Celebrate and honor God’s initial and continuing creation,
• Experience the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection as a challenge and invitation to our way of living,
• Receive again the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit and
• Claim a life of faith as the first fruits of eternal life offered to human beings beyond death.
Think for a moment about the work of yeast inside bread. When folded into the dough, its hidden presence expands the whole, changing its chemical structure, and gives the ingredients a new body, fragrance, and taste. Likewise, Sunday worship in community can work like yeast inside dough.5 It can transform the common material of time and space for our personal devotion on the other six days of the week, initiating a different rhythm and atmosphere. It gives worshipers the chance to withdraw briefly from the world to recall the whole of God’s design, and then sends us back out into the world able to live with deeper empathy and to act on behalf of those who have been marginalized.
Weekly communal worship also offers different content from the material of any other day, since it highlights Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist. Worshipers receive the bread and the wine (or juice) as the body and lifeblood of Jesus. In this symbolic act, two things happen at the same time: we receive Jesus’ offering of himself for us through the gift of his life and death, and we offer ourselves as whole persons back to God in love.
In many Protestant churches, Holy Communion is presented in remembrance of Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples the night before his death. (Mark 14:17-25) But I believe it is more accurately recognized as like the “First Breakfast” Christ had with his disciples, where he cooked fish on a fire by the lakeshore. (John 21:4-17) There the Risen Jesus ate with his followers and told Peter to “feed [his] sheep.”
Every weekly worship service is a unique experience, dependent upon God’s intentions and our openness to the Spirit. Sunday worship can help us commemorate Jesus’ past Resurrection, experience and celebrate his presence among us now as the Risen Christ, and receive the promise of his final coming and eternal life. Jesus assures us in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Your partner in faith,
1 – Betsy Schwarzentraub, Tossed In Time: Steering by the Christian Seasons, 2021.
2 – “A.D.” is from the Latin for Anno Domini. It means “in the Year of the Lord” and refers to the presumed year of Jesus’ birth. These days academics and general public usually use “C.E.” for “Common Era,” instead. While I acknowledge and respect other great spiritual leaders living in nearby centuries, I personally prefer using the Christian designation.
3 – Quoted in Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, p. 255.
4 – Odo Casel, The Mystery of Christian Worship and Other Writings, pp. 57-58.
5 – Clement of Alexandria, quoted in David R. Cartlidge and James Keith Elliott, The Art of Christian Legend, p. 64.