5 July OS 2016 – Monday of the Fifth Week of Matthew; St. Athanasios of Mt. Athos; St. Sergius of Radonezh; the New Nun-Martyr Elizabeth, Great Princess of Russia, and Those With Her.
In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 12:9-13), the Lord Jesus demonstrates the true keeping of the Sabbath:
At that time, when Jesus was departed thence, he went into their synagogue:
And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.
St. Theophan the Recluse uses this passage to remonstrate with the Orthodox Christians of his (and our!) time:
“It is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.” After healing the man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, the Lord said this as a reproach to the Pharisees, who took the commandment about Sabbath rest so far that they even measured the number of steps they could walk on that day. But since it is not possible to do good works without movement, they would sooner have agreed to neglect good works than to allow any extra movement. The Savior denounced them for this time and again, because the Sabbath required rest from worldly cares and not from works of piety and brotherly love. In Christianity, instead of the Sabbath, Sunday is celebrated with the same goal: rest from all worldly affairs and the devotion of the day solely to God’s works. Christian sobriety has never reached the point of Pharisaic pettiness concerning not doing things on Sunday. However, the permissible allowance for doing things on this day has been set far beyond the proper limits. Not doing things kept the Pharisees from performing good works, whereas the things which Christians allow themselves are what lead them away from good works. On the eve of Sunday they go to the theater and then to some other entertainment. In the morning they oversleep and there is no time to go to church. There are several visits, then lunch, and in the evening again entertainment. Thus all their time is relegated to the belly and to pleasing the other senses, and there is no time to remember God and good works. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 137-138
Let us apply St. Theophan’s remarks to our own situation. Today, Orthodox Christians who do not keep Sunday the way they should, are hypocrites to condemn or make fun of orthodox Jews for their legalistic attitude toward the Sabbath, since the result of their own lawless approach to the Lord’s Day is the same: disobedience to the will of God and the consequent loss of grace. And they have no excuse, for they are baptized members of Christ’s Church.
How does an Orthodox household spend Sunday?
First – Sunday begins on Saturday night! We plan Saturdays, so that all tasks and outings finish in time for us to prepare to go to Church for Vespers or Vigil (Vespers/Matins). Saturday night services are not only for the clergy or chanters or “super-pious.” They are for everyone. If we live too far from the church to make it reasonable to make the trip both Saturday night and Sunday morning, we should learn how to read the evening services at home. Today’s Orthodox Christians plan parties and other events on Saturday nights, or sit around watching movies and TV or practicing self-hypnosis on social media because they have become secularized, not because this is normal for us. When one has spent Saturday night in a godly manner, with church services, quiet time at home, spiritual reading, holy conversation, and prayer, the entire experience of Sunday is transformed, rising to a significantly higher spiritual level. It is a wonderful, life-transforming experience, and it can happen every week! (That’s why God designed the seven-day week). Try it…you’ll see. When one adds confession after Vespers and reading the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, Saturday night and Sunday become what they were meant to be: a taste of Paradise.
Second – We abstain from all food and drink from midnight onward on Sunday, not only when we are preparing to receive Holy Communion, but every week, in order to prepare spiritually to attend divine services and to be eligible to receive the antidoron (the blessed bread left over from the Offering, given to the baptized Orthodox present who have not received Holy Communion.
Third – We arise early on Sunday and prepare ourselves and our children to attend the Orthros or Hours and Divine Liturgy. We do not eat, drink, smoke, turn on entertainment devices or social media, or otherwise distract ourselves on Sunday morning. The time between arising and going to Church is strictly used for getting ready to go to Church, including some morning prayers and – optimally – pre-Communion prayers. We clothe ourselves in modest and dignified “Sunday best,” not just any old thing, and go peacefully to divine services, which begin not halfway through the Liturgy, or even with the beginning of the Liturgy, but with Matins (Orthros) or, if Matins took place the evening before, with the Hours.
Fourth – After attending Divine Services with attention and love, we spend the rest of the day in godly fashion. We socialize in Christian agape with our fellow parishioners and then spend the rest of the day in quiet, happy family activities or in doing good works – visiting an elderly friend, for example, or helping around the Church. And if on no other day, at least on Sunday, we should have the family around the table at the same time for dinner! Sunday also is the pre-eminent time to invite our fellow Orthodox to our home for spiritual fellowship.
Thus a true New Testament Sabbath!
For most of us, making the change to doing everything above will seem like a tall order. The biggest problem is being forced to work on Sundays, a recent phenomenon in the new post-Christian America. But if you use the Sundays when you do not have to work in the way God wants, and pray to be freed from working on Sundays, He may very well set you free! At any rate, pick out the easiest change to make from what you are doing now, make it, get used to it, and then make the next change, and go from there… Life is short, and so why waste your precious Sundays? The next may be your last.